Scripture: Romans 1:18 – 2:1
impact on the world, society, our families and our own state.
There is a children’s story concerning an emperor who once was fooled by some swindlers who told the emperor that they could make a most excellent set of clothing for a parade he was attending. Now he was told they were a magic set of clothes that only the wisest and cleverest of people can see. Not wanting to appear otherwise the king allowed them to make this magical set of clothes, which they did.
It was the day of the fitting and the king was to put the suit on and check it out. He stepped into the room with his underwear on, and the swindlers went about their business putting this magic set of clothes on the king. The king stood before a mirror, and not wishing to be seen as foolish he stood posing in this new set of magic clothes. “What wonderful lines, what magnificent cut and style and colour…” smiling at the manufacturers of this amazing garment he paid them and sent for the queen.
The queen was told all about the magic garments, and not wishing to appear a fool agreed with all the king had said.
To cut a long story short eventually a young child, who had not been told about the so called magic garments, shouted out in the parade that all were attending and pretending how wonderful the emperor looked, “The emperor is naked…” and burst into laughter.
People began to smirk a bit, then a chuckle here and there burst into full scale laughter. The Emperor found himself rather embarrassed and ashamed about how easily fooled he was.
Now, why is this child’s fairy-tale worth mentioning in a lesson on Romans?
Simple. Just like the Emperor who validated the magic clothing to pretend he was wearing a most excellent set of clothes, sometimes we think we are more moral and virtuous than the non-believers we deal with – but true virtue and goodness is first within, hidden deep sometimes beyond our own gaze.
In our section today, Paul begins a larger section dealing with the real state of humanity. It is broken into several parts which we will go through in the next while:
This first section looks at the general state of humanity, specifically the gentile world, and how it tends towards evil and reflects rebellion against God into the realm they dwell in. “The proof is in the pudding” means here that sin proves first towards our attitudes towards God, then by its actions in society and on the earth where our feet stand.
Romans 2:1 – 16 discusses the condition of the human heart, and how the law judges both Jew and Gentile.
Romans 2:17 – 3:8 the Jewish condition and their dependence on eternal ceremony to prove they are religious.
Finally finishing the section with a dual teaching on “All are sinners” and “Salvation is by faith alone”.
Point 1: the over view.
This section has a lot of content in it. There is a tendency to narrow the spectrum of what Paul meant here, I would like to enlarge the spectrum, but shrink the exposition. Another way of saying this – I want to get the gist of what Paul is saying without spending too much time breaking open the whole text.
How I will do this is by going through sections and summarising them, then in the next part dig into the deeper principles and finally giving the ‘therefore’ of it all.
Romans 1:18-23 (NIV) 18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
This first section addresses the general human condition. It speaks primarily of the gentiles and how they had lived up to the time of Jesus coming. Theirs was religion based upon the natural order, or what we call natural theology.
Natural theology is what can be known about God without God speaking or revealing Himself. Paul wisely limits what natural theology can teach us. We can know that the world was created and a god had done this. We can understand that such a god is powerful and not to be messed with, and that such a god exists outside of the created order. It is not possible to know much else for God is holy and so “other” that unless He revealed Himself we would only see faint shadows of His person and nature.
Ancient pagan religion would try to rip God from heaven and force Him to wear creations clothes, reflecting creations order and behaving in a way that suits human engineering and motivation.
To give an idea of what this was like let’s look at the Roman gods: (don’t read just have up.)
Apollo- The god of the sun/rides the sun
Bacchus- The god of wine, parties/festivals, madness, and merriment
Caelus- The god of the sky
Ceres- Saturn's daughter, goddess of farming and agriculture
Cupid- The god of love.
Diana -The goddess of the moon
Fortuna - The goddess of luck
Janus - The god of gates and doors
Juno - Jupiter's wife, and Goddess of marriage
Jupiter- The king of the gods and goddesses, and god of lightning and the sky
Mars - God of war
Mercury - Messenger of the gods; also the god of thieves, commerce and travelers.
Minerva- The virgin goddess of wisdom, handicrafts, strategic warfare, and trade
Neptune - The god of the sea
Nox - Roman name for Nyx, goddess of the night
Pluto - The god of death, and the riches under the Earth
Proserpina- Pluto's wife, goddess of spring, queen of the underworld
Saturn- The titan of time and king of the titans
Spes- The Goddess of hope
Terra- The goddess of the Earth
Venus- The goddess of love and beauty
Veritas- The goddess of truth
Vesta- The virgin goddess of home and hearth
Vulcan- The god of fire and blacksmiths
These gods were assigned to roles subject to the created order, in the doing and being of human behaviour. “God’s” subjected to themselves and to the world of men.
Paul’s verdict on this system of gods created into the image of man and the created order is simple “but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…” as people would go about offering sacrifices to appease these gods so they might manipulate good luck and good fortune from them.
Paul explains that there are consequences when humans go off on their own trajectory as ‘image bearers’ who God gave dominion of the earth too. Theirs would be the flow on effect of freedom in choice and then the consequences that would follow:
Romans 1:24-26 (NIV) 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
When Paul says “God gave them over” the image of fruit becoming rip and ready is an image here of what the word means. Another words they got the result of what they planted in their hearts, and were now expected to “eat the fruit” or consequences. Does this sound familiar?
Like in Eden where Adam and Eve ate the fruit and then lived with the consequences, so to do we re-live this judgement each time we make choices filled with evil and sinful desires. The “reap what you sow” principle always exists as this is the result of living with consequences.
God is a just being, and as such allows us to live with the consequences of our actions so as to evidence the reality of our choices individually and in society. That is why all people in a society bear the fruit of evil in society, no one is free from the unintended and intended consequences of human choices in the realm we live in.
And what is it God has given humanity over too?
“…sinful desires of their hearts…” It is the longing within us to please ourselves and our desires and compulsions that rules us. And this compulsion resides in our most inner person and spills outward till it hits the street.
Paul refers to two expressions in this section that spill out from this:
Unfaithfulness to each other, and unfaithfulness towards God.
Paul expands this thought:
Romans 1:26-27 (NIV) 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
If family is the building block of society, and the order that God has established for healthy societies, then evil would spill out into this area also and break down society by focusing people on things that oppose the order of God.
God’s choice to allow people to live with their choices means that we are free to degrade ourselves in all areas. A just God can only establish guilt when those being charged can be evidenced as choosing and doing the crime – and here Paul shows that humanity would even destroy the created order of God to lust after what they want.
This “due penalty” is the separation from God, and the wellbeing his order brings humanity and society. Here we see lust taking over what is natural and enjoyable, and causing it to be corrupt and selfish, immediate and unnatural.
Where evil reigns the society reflects it in its morality and its pursuits – just look at modern entertainment to see how kids can access adult material and be corrupted and negatively influenced by it. Evil always spills out on the street.
Paul then expands what this drive within humanity looks like more specifically, showing that it is not merely sexual but also influencing all other areas of existence we are engaged in here and now.
Romans 1:28-32 (NIV) 28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 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.
Moral law shows that doing bad results in bad. Natural theology dictates that doing bad to others results in society and relationships being corrupted. Yet, the world consistently knows that bad reaps bad, and then attacks each other over little bits of dirt – evil, when it is rip and full, always degrades us to animal instinct.
Evil spills out in relationships, in society, in economics, in politics, in business and in all areas where human feet stand.
God always allows people to act freely and then live with the consequence. Freely does not mean supremely, but means within the constraints of God’s ultimate plans. And what would one of these plans be?
God desires humanity to rediscover that evil produces evil, but God’s standards produce goodness and hope. Sin leads to death, but grace and mercy leads to life and love. As Adam and Eve freely sinned we must freely return to God.
Point 2: The influences that pollute the soul.
In verse 29 Paul lists four influences that pollute the human soul, and spill out to the streets in all our doing and being:
“They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.”
Wickedness - ἀδικία = that which is unjust, that which rejects what is right. Morally lacking and bad in behaviour.
Evil - πονηρία = To labour in doing what is corrupt and which celebrates sin. It deliberately does what is bad and rebellious to the heart and street.
Greed - πλεονεξία = the compulsion to have and take. The tendency to want it all and to validate doing this. The desire to take the deity from God, and make it our own is an expression of this.
Depravity - κακία = one willing to injure others to get what they want. The deliberate act of attacking another to gain from it. To create trouble and evil towards others.
All evil, all sin, is always horizontal and vertical. It stands against God and against humanity.
Humanity tends towards attitudes and actions that reject what is righteous and just. There is a tendency in the human condition that inspires effort towards rebellion and corrupt behaviour that we justify as good and necessary. We would build a “Babel” and claim to be our own god’s to validate the evil we pursue and pour on each other.
Paul finishes this section by laying a trap for the Roman Church members who would wave their finger in disgust at all these pagan sinners by pointing out the following:
Romans 2:1 (NIV) You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
Here is Paul's point, the reason for this whole section as discussed at the start – all are participants in the fellowship of evils schemes. If it were based upon our performance to be saved we would find ourselves in a futile effort, because we simply aren’t that nice towards God nor each other.
But, you might say, I am not as bad as Hitler. That may be so, but are you as good as God and without any fault in the way you deal with others?
Comparative goodness is a weak argument. Does that mean someone who has murdered 5 people is therefore more moral than someone who killed 6 people?
You see the opposite to Paul diagnosis of humanities general condition is the example of Jesus who emptied himself of his divine right and served his creation – the example of seeking the justice of God in right living, pursuing the will of God and the best for humanity, giving even his own body to be broken for us and desperately wanting all to experience the good things of God.
And this is why we are participants in the fellowship of the human struggle with sin – and why Paul later states “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
And, finally, why we shouldn’t point the finger of ‘righteous blame’ at others believing we are better and more than they are. Being saved is a gift of grace, not an evidence of superior moral conditioning. All have sinned, all need grace and all can be saved only through the gospel Paul so loved to preach.
Let’s not be like the emperor pretending to be dressed in what we are not. Let’s be real and accept that all are sinners, all need the grace of God expressed in the person of Jesus – and that alone will begin the transformation towards a better person and a better church.