A CALL, A GOSPEL AND A TASK (Romans 1:1-7)
1:1-7 This is a letter from Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart to serve the good news of God. This good news God promised long ago, through his prophets, in the sacred writings. It is good news about his Son, who in his manhood was born of David's lineage, who, as a result of his Resurrection from the dead, has been proved by the Holy Spirit to be the mighty Son of God. It is of Jesus Christ, our Lord, of whom I am speaking, through whom we have received grace, and an apostleship to awaken a faithful obedience for his sake amongst all the Gentiles. You are included amongst these Gentiles, you who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. This is a letter to all the beloved in Rome who belong to God, those who have been called to be dedicated to him. Grace be to you and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans he was writing to a church which he did not know personally and in which he had never been. He was writing to a church which was situated in the greatest city in the greatest empire in the world. Because of that he chose his words and thoughts with the greatest care.
He begins by giving his own credentials.
(i) He calls himself the slave (doulos, Greek #1401) of Jesus Christ. In this word slave there are two backgrounds of thought.
(a) Paul's favourite title for Jesus is Lord (kurios, Greek #2962). In Greek the word kurios (Greek #2962) describes someone who has undisputed possession of a person or a thing. It means master or owner in the most absolute sense. The opposite of Lord (kurios, Greek #2962) is slave (doulos, Greek #1401). Paul thought of himself as the slave of Jesus Christ, his Master and his Lord. Jesus had loved him and given himself for him, and therefore Paul was sure that he no longer belonged to himself, but entirely to Jesus. On the one side slave describes the utter obligation of love.
(b) But slave (doulos, Greek #1401) has another side to it. In the Old Testament it is the regular word to describe the great men of God. Moses was the doulos (Greek #1401) of the Lord (Joshua 1:2). Joshua was the doulos (Greek #1401) of God (Joshua 24:29). The proudest title of the prophets, the title which distinguished them from other men, was that they were the slaves of God (Amos 3:7; Jeremiah 7:25). When Paul calls himself the slave of Jesus Christ he is setting himself in the succession of the prophets. Their greatness and their glory lay in the fact that they were slaves of God, and so did his.
So then, the slave of Jesus Christ describes at one and the same time the obligation of a great love and the honour of a great office.
(ii) Paul describes himself as called to be an apostle. In the Old Testament the great men were men who heard and answered the call of God. Abraham heard the call of God (Genesis 12:1-3). Moses answered God's call (Exodus 3:10). Jeremiah and Isaiah were prophets because, almost against their will, they were compelled to listen to and to answer the call of God (Jeremiah 1:4-5; Isaiah 6:8-9). Paul never thought of himself as a man who had aspired to an honour; he thought of himself as a man who had been given a task. Jesus said to his men, "You did not choose me, but I chose you" (John 15:16). Paul did not think of life in terms of what he wanted to do, but in terms of what God meant him to do.
(iii) Paul describes himself as set apart to serve the good news of God. He was conscious of a double setting apart in his life. Twice in his life this very same word (aphorizein, Greek #873) is used of him.
(a) He was set apart by God. He thought of God as separating him for the task he was to do even before he was born (Galatians 1:15). For every man God has a plan; no man's life is purposeless. God sent him into the world to do some definite thing.
(b) He was set apart by men, when the Holy Spirit told the leaders of the Church at Antioch to separate him and Barnabas for the special mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:2). Paul was conscious of having a task to do for God and for the Church of God.
(iv) In this setting apart Paul was aware of having received two things. In Romans 1:5 he tells us what these two things were.
(a) He had received grace. Grace always describes some gift which is absolutely free and absolutely unearned. In his pre-Christian days Paul had sought to earn glory in the eyes of men and merit in the sight of God by meticulous observance of the works of the law, and he had found no peace that way. Now he knew that what mattered was not what he could do, but what God had done. It has been put this way, "The law lays down what a man must do; the gospel lays down what God has done." Paul now saw that salvation depended not on what man's effort could do, but on what God's love had done. All was of grace, free and undeserved.
(b) He had received a task. He was set apart to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul knew himself to be chosen not for special honour, but for special responsibility. He knew that God had set him apart, not for glory, but for toil. It may well be that there is a play on words here. Once Paul had been a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5). Pharisee may very well mean The Separated One. It may be that the Pharisees were so called because they had deliberately separated themselves from all ordinary people and would not even let the skirt of their robe brush against an ordinary man. They would have shuddered at the very thought of the offer of God being made to the Gentiles, who to them were "fuel for the fires of hell." Once Paul had been like that. He had felt himself separated in such a way as to have nothing but contempt for all ordinary men. Now he knew himself to be separated in such a way that he must spend all his life to bring the news of God's love to every man of every race. Christianity always separates us, but it separates us not for privilege and self-glory and pride, but for service and humility and love for all men.
Besides giving his own credentials Paul, in this passage, sets out in its most essential outline the gospel which he preached. It was a gospel which centred in Jesus Christ (Romans 1:3-4). In particular it was a gospel of two things.
(a) It was a gospel of the Incarnation. He told of a Jesus who was really and truly a man. One of the great early thinkers of the Church summed it up when he said of Jesus, "He became what we are, to make us what he is." Paul preached of someone who was not a legendary figure in an imaginary story, not a demigod, half god and half man. He preached of one who was really and truly one with the men he came to save.
(b) It was a gospel of the Resurrection. If Jesus had lived a lovely life and died an heroic death, and if that had been the end of him, he might have been numbered with the great and the heroic, but he would simply have been one among many. His uniqueness is guaranteed forever by the fact of the Resurrection. The others are dead and gone, and have left a memory. Jesus lives on and gives us a presence, still mighty with power.
THE COURTESY OF GREATNESS (Romans 1:8-15)
1:8-15 To begin with, I thank my God for you all through Jesus Christ. I thank him that the story of your faith is told throughout the whole world. God, whom I serve in my spirit in the work of spreading the good news of his Son, is my witness that I continually talk to him about you. In my prayers I am always asking that somehow, soon, at last, I may by God's will succeed in finding a way to come to you. For I yearn to see you, that I may give you a share of some gift which the Spirit gives, so that you may be firmly founded in the faith--what I mean is, that you and I may find encouragement together, I through your faith and you through mine. I want you to know, brothers, that I have often planned to come to you--and up until now I have been prevented from doing so--that I might have some fruit among you too, as I have amongst the rest of the Gentiles. I am under a duty to Greeks and to barbarians, to wise and to foolish. So, then, it is my eager wish to preach the good news to you too in Rome.
After almost nineteen hundred years the warm affection of this passage still breathes through it, and we can feel Paul's great heart throbbing with love for the Church which he had never seen. Paul's problem in writing this letter was that he had never been in Rome and had had no share in founding the Roman Church. He had to make them feel that he was not a trespasser on their preserves, interfering where he had no right to intervene. Before he could do anything else, he had to get alongside them so that the barriers of strangeness and suspicion might be broken down.
(i) Paul, in wisdom and love combined, began with a compliment. He told them that he thanked God for that Christian faith of theirs which all the world knew. There are some people whose tongues are tuned to praise, and others whose tongues are tuned to criticize. There are some people whose eyes are focused to find faults, and others whose eyes are focused to discover virtues. It was said of Thomas Hardy that, if he went into a country field, he would always see, not the wild flowers, but the dung-heap in the corner. But the fact remains that we will always get far more out of people by praising them than by criticizing them. The men who get the best out of others are the men who insist on seeing them at their best.
There never was, and never has been, anything quite so beautiful as the civilization of the Greeks at its highest and its best, and T. R. Glover once said that it was founded on "a blind faith in the average man." One of the great figures of the 1914-18 war was Donald Hankey, who wrote The Student in Arms. He saw men at their best and at their worst. He once wrote home, "If I survive this war I want to write a book called 'The Living Goodness,' analysing all the goodness and nobility inherent in plain people, and trying to show how it ought to find fulfilment and expression in the Church." He also wrote a great essay entitled The Beloved Captain. He describes how the beloved captain picked out the awkward ones and taught them himself. "He looked at them and they looked at him, and the men pulled themselves together and determined to do their best."
No one can ever even begin to save men unless he first believes in them. A man is a hell-deserving sinner, but he has also a sleeping hero in his soul, and often a word of praise will awaken that sleeping heroism when criticism and condemnation will only produce resentment and despair. Aidan was the apostle to the Saxons. Away back in A.D. 630 the Saxon king had sent to Iona a request that a missionary should be sent to his kingdom to preach the gospel. The missionary came back talking of the "stubborn and barbarous disposition of the English." "The English have no manners," he said, "they behave like savages." He reported that the task was hopeless, and then Aidan spoke. "I think, brother," he said, "that you may have been too severe for such ignorant hearers, and that you should have led them on gently, giving them first the milk of religion before the meat." So Aidan was sent to Northumbria, and his gentleness won for Christ that very people whom the critical severity of his brother monk had repelled.
(ii) Although Paul did not know the people at Rome personally he nevertheless constantly prayed to God for them. It is ever a Christian privilege and duty to bear our loved ones and all our fellow-Christians to the throne of grace. In one of his sermons on the Lord's Prayer, Gregory of Nyssa has a lyrical passage on prayer:
"The effect of prayer is union with God, and, if someone is
with God, he is separated from the enemy. Through prayer we
guard our chastity, control our temper and rid ourselves of
vanity. It makes us forget injuries, overcomes envy, defeats
injustice and makes amends for sin. Through prayer we obtain
physical well-being, a happy home, and a strong, well-ordered
society. Prayer is the seal of virginity and a pledge of
faithfulness in marriage. It shields the wayfarer, protects the
sleeper, and gives courage to those who keep vigil. It will
refresh you when you are weary and comfort you when you are
sorrowful. Prayer is the delight of the joyful as well as the
solace of the afflicted. Prayer is intimacy with God and
contemplation of the invisible. Prayer is the enjoyment of
things present and the substance of the things to come."
Even if we are separated from people, and even if there is no other gift which we can give to them, we can surround them with the strength and the defence of our prayers.
(iii) Paul, in his humility, was always ready to receive as well as to give. He began by saying that he wished to come to Rome that he might impart to the Roman Church some gift which would confirm them in the faith. And then he changed it. He wished to come to Rome that he and the Roman Church might comfort and strengthen each other, and that each might find precious things in the faith of the other. There are two kinds of teachers. There are those whose attitude is that they are standing above their scholars and telling them what they should and must accept. And there are those who, in effect, say, "Come now, let's learn about this together." Paul was the greatest thinker the Early Church ever produced, and yet, when he thought of the people to whom he longed to preach, he thought of himself not only as giving to them but also as receiving from them. It takes humility to teach as it takes humility to learn.
(iv) Romans 8:14 has in Greek a double meaning that is almost untranslatable. The Revised Standard Version has it, "I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians." Paul was thinking of two things when he wrote that. He was under obligation because of all the kindness that he had received, and he was under obligation to preach to them. This highly compressed sentence means, "Because of all that I have received from them and because of all it is my duty to give to them, I am under an obligation to all sorts of men."
It may seem strange that Paul speaks of Greeks when he is writing to Romans. At this time the word Greek had lost its racial sense altogether. It did not mean a native of the country of Greece. The conquests of Alexander the Great had taken the Greek language and Greek thought all over the world. And a Greek was no longer only one who was a Greek by race and birth; he was one who knew the culture and the mind of Greece. A barbarian is literally a man who says bar-bar, that is to say a man who speaks an ugly and an unharmonious tongue in contrast with the man who speaks the beautiful, flexible language of Greek. To be a Greek was to be a man of a certain mind and spirit and culture. One of the Greeks said of his own people, "The barbarians may stumble on the truth, but it takes a Greek to understand."
What Paul meant was that his message, his friendship, his obligation was to wise and simple, cultured and uncultured, lettered and unlettered. He had a message for the world, and it was his ambition some day to deliver that message in Rome too.
GOOD NEWS OF WHICH TO BE PROUD (Romans 1:16-17)
1:16-17 I am proud of the good news, for it is the power of God which produces salvation for every one who believes, to the Jew first and to the Greek. The way to a right relationship with God is revealed in it when man's faith responds to God's fidelity, just as it stands written, "It is the man who is in a right relationship with God as a result of his faith who will live."
When we come to these two verses, the preliminaries are over and the trumpet call of Paul's gospel sounds out. Many of the great piano concertos begin with a crashing chord and then state the theme which they are going to develop. The reason is that they were often first performed at private gatherings in great houses. When the pianist first seated himself at the piano, there was still a buzz of conversation. He played the crashing chord to attract the attention of the company, and then, when attention was obtained, the theme was stated. Up to these two verses, Paul has been making contact with the people to whom he was writing; he has been attracting their attention. Now the introduction is over, and the theme is stated.
There are only two verses here, but they contain so much of the quintessence of Paul's gospel that we must spend some considerable time on them.
Paul began by saying that he was proud of the gospel which it was his privilege to preach. It is amazing to think of the background of that statement. Paul had been imprisoned in Philippi, chased out of Thessalonica, smuggled out of Beroea, laughed at in Athens and in Corinth his message was foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling-block to the Jews. Out of that background he declared that he was proud of the gospel. There was something in the gospel which made Paul triumphantly victorious over all that men could do to him.
In this passage we meet three great Pauline watchwords, the three foundation pillars of his thought and belief.
(i) There is the conception of salvation (soteria, Greek #4991). At this time in history salvation was the one thing for which men were searching. There had been a time when Greek philosophy was speculative. Four and five hundred years before this men had spent their time discussing the problem--what is the one basic element of which the world is composed? Philosophy had been speculative philosophy and it had been natural philosophy. But, bit by bit, as the centuries passed, life fell in. The old landmarks were destroyed. Tyrants and conquerors and perils surrounded men; degeneracy and weakness haunted them; and philosophy changed its emphasis. It became, not speculative, but practical. It ceased to be natural philosophy, and became moral philosophy. Its one aim was to build "a ring-wall of defence against the advancing chaos of the world."
Epictetus called his lecture room the hospital for the sick soul. "Epicurus called his teaching the medicine of salvation." Seneca, who was contemporary with Paul, said that all men were looking, ad salutem, towards salvation. What we needed, he said, was "a hand let down to lift us up." Men, he said, were overwhelmingly conscious of "their weakness and their inefficiency in necessary things." He himself, he said, was homo non tolerabilis, a man not to be tolerated. Men loved their vices, he said with a sort of despair, and hated them at the same time. In that desperate world, Epictetus said, men were seeking a peace "not of Caesar's proclamation, but of God's."
There can seldom have been a time in history when men were more universally seeking for salvation. It was precisely that salvation, that power, that escape, that Christianity came to offer men.
Let us see just what this Christian soteria (Greek #4991), this Christian salvation was.
(a) It was salvation from physical illness. (Matthew 9:21; Luke 8:36.) It was not a completely other--worldly thing. It aimed at rescuing a man in body and in soul.
(b) It was salvation from danger. (Matthew 8:25; Matthew 14:30.) It was not that it gave a man a life free from perils and dangers, but it gave him a security of soul no matter what was happening. As Rupert Brooke wrote in the days of the First World War in his poem Safety:
"Safe shall be my going,
Secretly armed against all death's endeavour;
Safe though all safety's lost; safe where men fall;
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all."
And as Browning had it in Paracelsus:
"If I stoop,
Into a dark tremendous sea of cloud,
It is but for a time; I press God's lamp
Close to my breast; its splendour, soon or late,
Will pierce the gloom: I shall emerge one day."
The Christian salvation makes a man safe in a way that is independent of any outward circumstance.
(c) It was salvation from life's infection. It is from a crooked and perverse generation that a man is saved (Acts 2:40). The man who has this Christian salvation has a kind of divine antiseptic which keeps him from infection by the evil of the world.
(d) It was salvation from lostness (Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10). It was to seek and to save the lost that Jesus came. The unsaved man is the man who is on the wrong road, a road that leads to death. The saved man is the man who has been put on the right way.
(e) It was salvation from sin (Matthew 1:21). Men are like slaves in bondage to a master from whom they cannot escape. The Christian salvation liberates them from the tyranny of sin.
(f) It was salvation from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). We shall have occasion in the next passage to discuss the meaning of this phrase. It is sufficient to note at the moment that there is in this world an inexorable moral law and in the Christian faith an inevitable element of judgment. Without the salvation which Jesus Christ brings a man could only stand condemned.
(g) It was a salvation which is eschatological. That is to say it is a salvation which find its full meaning and blessedness in the final triumph of Jesus Christ (Romans 13:11; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Timothy 4:18; 1 Peter 1:5).
The Christian faith came to a desperate world offering a salvation which would keep a man safe in time and in eternity.
(ii) There is the conception of faith. In the thought of Paul this is a rich word.
(a) At its simplest it means loyalty. When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he wished to know about their faith. That is, he wished to know how their loyalty was standing the test. In 2 Thessalonians 1:4 faith and steadfastness are combined. Faith is the enduring fidelity which marks the real soldier of Jesus Christ.
(b) Faith means belief. It means the conviction that something is true. In 1 Corinthians 15:17 Paul tells the Corinthians that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then their faith is vain, all that they have believed is wrecked. Faith is the assent that the Christian message is true.
(c) Faith sometimes means the Christian Religion (The Faith). In 2 Corinthians 13:5 Paul tells his opponents to examine themselves to see if they are holding to their faith, that is, to see if they are still within the Christian Religion.
(d) Faith is sometimes practically equivalent to indestructible hope. "We walk," writes Paul, "by faith and not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7).
(e) But, in its most characteristic Pauline use, faith means total acceptance and absolute trust. It means "betting your life that there is a God." It means being utterly sure that what Jesus said is true, and staking all time and eternity on that assurance. "I believe in God," said Stevenson, "and if I woke up in hell I would still believe in him."
Faith begins with receptivity. It begins when a man is at least willing to listen to the message of the truth. It goes on to mental assent. A man first hears and then agrees that this is true. But mental assent need not issue in action. Many a man knows very well that something is true, but does not change his actions to meet that knowledge. The final stage is when this mental assent becomes total surrender. In full-fledged faith, a man hears the Christian message, agrees that it is true, and then casts himself upon it in a life of total yieldedness.
(iii) There is the conception of justification. Now there are no more difficult words to understand than justification, justify, justice and just, in all the New Testament. We shall have much occasion in this letter to meet them. At this point we can only lay down the broad lines on which all Paul's thought proceeds.
The Greek verb that Paul uses for "to justify" is dikaioun (Greek #1344), of which the first person singular of the present indicative--I justify--is dikaioo (Greek #1344). We must be quite clear that the word justify, used in this sense, has a different meaning from its ordinary English meaning. If we justify ourselves, we produce reasons to prove that we were right; if someone justifies us, he produces reasons to prove that we acted in the right way. But all verbs in Greek which end in "oo" do not mean to prove or to make a person or thing to be something; they always mean to treat, or account or reckon a person as something. If God justifies a sinner, it does not mean that he finds reasons to prove that he was right--far from it. It does not even mean, at this point, that he makes the sinner a good man. It means that God treats the sinner as if he had not been a sinner at all. Instead of treating him as a criminal to be obliterated, God treats him as a child to be loved. That is what justification means. It means that God reckons us not as his enemies but as his friends, not as bad men deserve, but as good men deserve, not as law-breakers to be punished, but as men and women to be loved. That is the very essence of the gospel.
That means that to be justified is to enter into a new relationship with God, a relationship of love and confidence and friendship, instead of one of distance and enmity and fear. We no longer go to a God radiating just but terrible punishment. We go to a God radiating forgiving and redeeming love. Justification (dikaiosune, Greek #1343) is the right relationship between God and man. The man who is just (dikaios, Greek #1342) is the man who is in this right relationship, and--here is the supreme point--he is in it not because of anything that he has done, but because of what God has done. He is in this right relationship not because he has meticulously performed the works of the law, but because in utter faith he has cast himself on the amazing mercy and love of God.
In the King James Version we have the famous and highly compressed phrase, The just shall live by faith. Now we can see that in Paul's mind this phrase meant--It is the man who is in a right relationship with God, not because of the works of his hands, but because of his utter faith in what the love of God has done, who really knows what life is like in time and in eternity. And to Paul the whole work of Jesus was that he had enabled men to enter into this new and precious relationship with God. Fear was gone and love had come. The God whom men had thought an enemy had become a friend.
THE WRATH OF GOD (Romans 1:18-23)
1:18-23 For the wrath of God is being revealed from Heaven, directed against all impiousness and wickedness of men, who, in their wickedness, wilfully suppress the truth that is struggling in their hearts, for, that which can be known about God is clear within them, for God has made it clear to them, because, from the creation of the world, it has always been possible to understand the invisible things by the created things--I mean his invisible power and divinity--and things have been so ordered in order to leave them without defence, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify God and they did not give him thanks, but they have involved themselves in futile speculations and their senseless mind was darkened. They alleged themselves to be wise, but they have become fools, and they have exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the image of the likeness of mortal man, and of winged creatures, and of four-footed animals, and of creeping reptiles.
In the previous passage Paul was thinking about the relationship with God into which a man can enter through the faith which is utter yieldedness and trust. In contrast with that he sets the wrath of God which a man must incur, if he is deliberately blind to God and worships his own thoughts and idols instead of him.
This is difficult and must give us seriously to think, for here we meet the conception of the wrath of God, an alarming and a terrifying phrase. What is its meaning? What was in Paul's mind when he used it?
In the early parts of the Old Testament the wrath of God is specially connected with the idea of the covenant people. The people of Israel were in a special relationship with God. He had chosen them and offered them this special relationship, which would obtain so long as they kept his law (Exodus 24:3-8). That meant two things.
(a) It meant that within the nation any breach of the law provoked the wrath of God for it broke the relationship. Numbers 16:1-50 tells of the rebelliousness of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and at the end of it Moses bade Aaron make special atonement for the sin of the people "for wrath has gone forth from the Lord" (Numbers 16:46). When the Israelites were led away into Baal worship, "The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel" (Numbers 25:3).
(b) Further, because Israel stood in a unique relationship to God, any other nation which treated her with cruelty and injustice incurred the wrath of God. The Babylonians had ill-treated Israel, and because of the wrath of the Lord she shall not be inhabited (Jeremiah 50:13).
In the prophets, the idea of the wrath of God occurs, but the emphasis has changed. Jewish religious thought from the prophets onwards was dominated by the idea of the two ages. There was this age which was altogether bad, and there was the golden age which was altogether good, the present age and the age to come. These two ages were separated by the Day of the Lord. That was to be a day of terrible retribution and judgment, when the world would be shattered, the sinner destroyed and the universe remade before God's Kingdom came. It was then that the wrath of the Lord would go into terrible action. "Behold the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation" (Isaiah 13:9). "Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts" (Isaiah 9:19). Ezekiel 7:19 speaks of "the day of the wrath of the Lord." God will pour out upon the nations "his indignation and all the heat of his anger" (Zephaniah 3:8).
But the prophets did not regard the wrath of God as being postponed until that terrible day of judgment. They saw it continuously in action. When Israel strayed away from God, when she was rebellious and unfaithful, then the wrath of God operated against her and involved her in ruin, disaster, captivity and defeat.
To the prophets the wrath of God was continually operating, and would reach its peak of terror and destruction on the coming Day of the Lord.
A modern scholar has put it this way. Because he is God, because he is characteristically holy, God cannot tolerate sin, and the wrath of God is his "annihilating reaction" against sin.
That is hard for us to grasp and to accept. It is in fact the kind of religion that we associate with the Old Testament rather than with the New. Even Luther found it hard. He spoke of God's love as Gods own work, and he spoke of his wrath as Gods strange work. It is for the Christian mind a baffling thing.
Let us try to see how Paul understood this conception. Dr C. H. Dodd writes very wisely and profoundly on this matter. Paul speaks frequently of this idea of wrath. But the strange thing is that although he speaks of the wrath of God, he never speaks of God being angry. He speaks of God's love, and he speaks of God loving. He speaks of God's grace, and of God graciously giving. He speaks of God's fidelity, and of God being faithful to his people. But, very strangely, although he speaks of the wrath of God, he never speaks about God being angry. So then there is some difference in the connection with God of love and wrath.
Further, Paul speaks of the wrath of God only three times. He does so here, and in Ephesians 5:6 and Colossians 3:6 where, in both passages, he speaks of the wrath of God coming upon the children of disobedience. But quite frequently Paul speaks about the wrath, without saying it is the wrath of God, as if it ought to be spelled with capital letters--The Wrath--and was a kind of impersonal force at work in the world. In Romans 3:5 the literal translation is, "God who brings on men The Wrath." In Romans 5:9 he speaks about being saved from the wrath. In Romans 12:19 he advises men not to take vengeance but to leave evil-doers to the wrath. In Romans 13:5 he speaks about the wrath as being a powerful motive to keep men obedient. In Romans 4:15 he says that the law produces wrath. And in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 he says that Jesus delivered us from The Wrath to come. Now there is something very strange here. Paul speaks about the wrath, and yet from that very wrath Jesus saves men.
Let us go back to the prophets. Very often their message amounted to this, "If you are not obedient to God, the wrath of God will involve you in ruin and disaster." Ezekiel put this in another vivid way--"The soul that sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4). If we were to put this into modern language we would say, "There is a moral order in this world, and the man who transgresses it soon or late is bound to suffer." That is exactly what J. A. Froude the great historian said: "One lesson, and one lesson only, history may be said to repeat with distinctness, that the world is built somehow on moral foundations, that, in the long run, it is well with the good, and, in the long run, it will be ill with the wicked."
The whole message of the Hebrew prophets was that there is a moral order in this world. The conclusion is clear--that moral order is the wrath of God at work. God made this world in such a way that we break his laws at our peril. Now if we were left solely at the mercy of that inexorable moral order, there could be nothing for us but death and destruction. The world is made in such a way that the soul that sins must die--if the moral order is to act alone. But into this dilemma of man there comes the love of God, and that love of God, by an act of unbelievable free grace, lifts man out of the consequences of sin and saves him from the wrath he should have incurred.
Paul goes on to insist that men cannot plead ignorance of God. They could have seen what he is like from his world. It is always possible to tell something of a man from his handiwork; and it is possible to tell something about God from the world he made. The Old Testament writers knew that. Job 38:1-41; Job 39:1-30; Job 40:1-24; Job 41:1-34, is based on that very idea. Paul knew it. It is from the world that he starts when he is speaking to the pagans at Lystra (Acts 14:17). Tertullian, the great early Christian Father, has much about this conviction that God can be seen in his world. "It was not the pen of Moses that initiated the knowledge of the Creator. The vast majority of mankind, though they had never heard the name of Moses--to say nothing of his book--know the God of Moses none the less." "Nature," he said, "is the teacher; the soul is the pupil." "One flower of the hedgerow by itself, I think--I do not say a flower of the meadows; one shell of any sea you like--I do not say a pearl from the Red Sea; one feather of a moor fowl--to say nothing of a peacock--will they speak to you of a mean Creator?" "If I offer you a rose, you will not scorn its Creator."
In the world we can see God. It is Paul's argument--and it is completely valid--that if we look at the world we see that suffering follows sin. Break the laws of agriculture--your harvest fails. Break the laws of architecture--your building collapses. Break the laws of health--your body suffers. Paul was saying "Look at the world! See how it is constructed! From a world like that you know what God is like." The sinner is left without excuse.
Paul goes on another step. What did the sinner do? Instead of looking out to God, he looked into himself. He involved himself in vain speculations and thought he was wise, while all the time he was a fool. Why? He was a fool because he made his ideas, his opinions, his speculations the standard and the law of life, instead of the will of God. The sinner's folly consisted in making "man the master of things." He found his standards in his own opinions and not in the laws of God. He lived in a self-centred instead of a God-centred universe. Instead of walking looking out to God he walked looking into himself, and, like any man who does not look where he is going, he fell.
The result of this was idolatry. The glory of God was exchanged for images of human and animal forms. The root sin of idolatry is that it is selfish. A man makes an idol. He brings it offerings and addresses prayers to it. Why? So that his own schemes and dreams may be furthered. His worship is for his own sake and not for God's.
In this passage we are face to face with the fact that the essence of sin is to put self in the place of God.
MEN WITH WHOM GOD CAN DO NOTHING (Romans 1:24-25)
1:24-25 So then God abandoned them to uncleanness in their hearts' passionate desires for pleasure, desires which made them dishonour their bodies among themselves, for they are men who have exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, and who worship and serve the creation more than they do the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.
The word translated desires (epithumia, Greek #1939) is the key to this passage. Aristotle defined epithumia (Greek #1939) as a reaching out after pleasure. The Stoics defined it as a reaching after pleasure which defies all reason. Clement of Alexandria called it an unreasonable reaching for that which will gratify itself. Epithumia (Greek #1939) is the passionate desire for forbidden pleasure. It is the desire which makes men do nameless and shameless things. It is the way of life of a man who has become so completely immersed in the world that he has ceased to be aware of God at all.
It is a terrible thing to talk of God abandoning anyone. And yet there are two reasons for that.
(i) God gave man free-will, and he respects that free-will. In the last analysis not even he can interfere with it. In Ephesians 4:19 Paul speaks of men who have abandoned themselves to lasciviousness; they have surrendered their whole will to it. Hosea (Hosea 4:17) has the terrible sentence: "Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone." Before man there stands an open choice; and it has to be so. Without choice there can be no goodness and without choice there can be no love. A coerced goodness is not real goodness; and a coerced love is not love at all. If men deliberately choose to turn their backs on God after he has sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world, not even he can do anything about it.
When Paul speaks of God abandoning men to uncleanness, the word abandon has no angry irritation in it. Indeed, its main note is not even condemnation and judgment, but wistful, sorrowful regret, as of a lover who has done all that he can and can do no more. It describes exactly the feeling of the father when he saw his son turn his back on his home and go out to the far country.
(ii) And yet in this word abandon there is more than that--there is judgment. It is one of the grim facts of life that the more a man sins the easier it is to sin. He may begin with a kind of shuddering awareness of what he is doing, and end by sinning without a second thought. It is not that God is punishing him; he is bringing punishment upon himself and steadily making himself the slave of sin. The Jews knew this, and they had certain great sayings upon this idea. "Every fulfilment of duty is rewarded by another; and every transgression is punished by another." "Whosoever strives to keep himself pure receives the power to do so; and whosoever is impure, to him is the door of vice thrown open." "He who erects a fence around himself is fenced, and he who gives himself over is given over."
The most terrible thing about sin is just this power to beget sin. It is the awful responsibility of free-will that it can be used in such a way that in the end it is obliterated and a man becomes the slave of sin, self-abandoned to the wrong way. And sin is always a lie, because the sinner thinks that it will make him happy, whereas in the end it ruins life, both for himself and for others, in this world and in the world to come.
AN AGE OF SHAME (Romans 1:26-27)
1:26-27 Because of this God abandoned them to dishonourable passions, for their women exchanged the natural relationship, for the relationship which is against nature; and so did the men, for they gave up the natural relationship with women, and were inflamed with their desire for each other, and men were guilty of shameful conduct with men. So within themselves they received their due and necessary rewards for their error.
Romans 1:26-32 might seem the work of some almost hysterical moralist who was exaggerating the contemporary situation and painting it in colours of rhetorical hyperbole. It describes a situation of degeneracy of morals almost without parallel in human history. But Paul said nothing that the Greek and Roman writers of the age did not themselves say.
(i) It was an age when things seemed, as it were, out of control. Virgil wrote: "Right and wrong are confounded; so many wars the world over, so many forms of wrong; no worthy honour is left to the plough; the husbandmen are marched away and the fields grow dirty; the hook has its curve straightened into the sword-blade. In the East, Euphrates is stirring up the war, in the West, Germany; nay, close-neighbouring cities break their mutual league and draw the sword, and the war god's unnatural fury rages over the whole world; even as when in the circus the chariots burst from their floodgates, they dash into the course, and, pulling desperately at the reins, the driver lets the horses drive him, and the car is deaf to the curb."
It was a world where violence had run amok. When Tacitus came to write the history of this period, he wrote: "I am entering upon the history of a period, rich in disasters, gloomy with wars, rent with seditions, savage in its very hours of peace.
All was one delirium of hate and terror; slaves were bribed to betray their masters, freedmen their patrons. He who had no foe was destroyed by his friend." Suetonius, writing of the reign of Tiberius, said: "No day passed but someone was executed." It was an age of sheer, utter terror. "Rome," said Livy, the historian, "could neither bear its ills nor the remedies that might have cured them." Propertius, the poet, wrote: "I see Rome, proud Rome, perishing, the victim of her own prosperity." It was an age of moral suicide. Juvenal, the satirist, wrote: "The earth no longer brings forth any but bad men and cowards. Hence God, whoever he is, looks down, laughs at them and hates them."
To the thinking man it was an age when things seemed out of control, and when, in the background, a man could hear the mocking laughter of the gods. As Seneca said, it was an age "stricken with the agitation of a soul no longer master of itself."
(ii) It was an age of unparalleled luxury. In the public baths of Rome the hot and cold water ran from silver taps. Caligula had even sprinkled the floor of the circus arena with gold dust instead of sawdust. Juvenal said bitterly: "A luxury more ruthless than war broods over Rome. No guilt or deed of lust is wanting since Roman poverty disappeared." "Money, the nurse of debauchery and enervating riches sapped the sinews of the age with foul luxury." Seneca spoke of "money, the ruin of the true honour of things," and said, "we ask not what a thing truly is but what it costs." It was an age so weary of ordinary things that it was avid for new sensations. Lucretius speaks of "that bitterness which flows from the very fountain of pleasure." Crime became the only antidote to boredom, until, as Tacitus said, "the greater the infamy, the wilder the delight."
(iii) It was an age of unparalleled immorality. There had not been one single case of divorce in the first 520 years of the history of the Roman republic. The first Roman recorded as having divorced his wife was Spurius Carvilius Ruga in 234 B.C. But now, as Seneca said, "women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married." Roman high-born matrons dated the years by the names of their husbands, and not by the names of the consuls. Juvenal could not believe that it was possible to have the rare good fortune to find a matron with unsullied chastity. Clement of Alexandria speaks of the typical Roman society lady as "girt like Venus with a golden girdle of vice." Juvenal writes: "Is one husband enough for lberina? Sooner will you prevail upon her to be content with one eye." He cites the case of a woman who had eight husbands in five years. He cites the incredible case of Agrippina, the empress herself, the wife of Claudius, who at night used to leave the royal palace and go down to serve in a brothel for the sake of sheer lust. "They show a dauntless spirit in those things they basely dare." There is nothing that Paul said about the heathen world that the heathen moralists had not themselves already said. And vice did not stop with the crude and natural vices. Society from top to bottom was riddled with unnatural vice. Fourteen out of the first fifteen Roman Emperors were homosexuals.
So far from exaggerating the picture Paul drew it with restraint--and it was there that he was eager to preach the gospel, and it was there that he was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. The world needed the power that would work salvation, and Paul knew that nowhere else than in Christ did that power exist.
THE LIFE WHICH HAS LEFT GOD OUT OF THE RECKONING (Romans 1:28-32)
1:28-32 Just as they have given themselves over to a kind of knowledge that rejects the idea of God, so God has given them over to the kind of mind that all reject. The result is that they do things which it is not fitting for any man to do. They are replete with all evil, villainy, the lust to get, viciousness. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, the spirit which puts the worst construction on everything. They are whisperers, slanderers, haters of God. They are insolent men, arrogant, braggarts, inventors of evil things, disobedient to their parents, senseless breakers of agreements, without natural affections, pitless. They are the kind of men who are well aware that those who do such things deserve death, and yet they not only do them themselves, but also heartily approve of those who do them.
There is hardly any passage which so clearly shows what happens to a man when he leaves God out of the reckoning. It is not so much that God sends a judgment on a man, as that a man brings a judgment on himself when he gives no place to God in his scheme of things. When a man banishes God from his life he becomes a certain kind of man, and in this passage is one of the most terrible descriptions in literature of the kind of man he becomes. Let us took at the catalogue of dreadful things which enter into the godless life.
Such men do things which are not fitting for any man to do. The Stoics had a phrase. They talked of ta (Greek #3588) kathekonta (Greek #2520), by which they meant the things it befits a man to do. Certain things are essentially and inherently part of manhood, and certain things are not. As Shakespeare has it in Macbeth:
"I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none."
The man who banishes God not only loses godliness; he loses manhood too.
Then comes the long list of terrible things. Let us take them one by one.
Evil (adikia, Greek #93). Adikia is the precise opposite of diaiosune (Greek #1343), which means justice; and the Greeks defined justice as giving to God and to men their due. The evil man is the man who robs both man and God of their rights. He has so erected an altar to himself in the centre of things that he worships himself to the exclusion of God and man.
Villainy (poneria, Greek #4189). In Greek this word means more than badness. There is a kind of badness which, in the main, hurts only the person concerned. It is not essentially an outgoing badness. When it hurts others, as all badness must, the hurt is not deliberate. It may be thoughtlessly cruel, but it is not callously cruel. But the Greeks defined poneria (Greek #4189) as the desire of doing harm. It is the active, deliberate will to corrupt and to inflict injury. When the Greeks described a woman as poneria (Greek #4189) they meant that she deliberately seduced the innocent from their innocence. In Greek one of the commonest titles of Satan is ho poneros (Greek #4190), the evil one, the one who deliberately attacks and aims to destroy the goodness of men. Poneros (Greek #4190) describes the man who is not only bad but wants to make everyone as bad as himself. Poneria (Greek #4189) is destructive badness.
The lust to get (pleonexia, Greek #4124). The Greek word is built up of two words which mean to have more. The Greeks themselves defined pleonexia (Greek #4124) as the accursed love of having. It is an aggressive vice. It has been described as the spirit which will pursue its own interests with complete disregard for the rights of others, and even for the considerations of common humanity. Its keynote is rapacity. Theodoret, the Christian writer, describes it as the spirit that aims at more, the spirit which grasps at things which it has no right to take. It may operate in every sphere of life. If it operates in the material sphere, it means grasping at money and goods, regardless of honour and honesty. If it operates in the ethical sphere, it means the ambition which tramples on others to gain something which is not properly meant for it. If it operates in the moral sphere, it means the unbridled lust which takes its pleasure where it has no right to take. Pleonexia (Greek #4124) is the desire which knows no law.
Viciousness (kakia, Greek #2549). Kakia is the most general Greek word for badness. It describes the case of a man who is destitute of every quality which would make him good. For instance, a kakos (Greek #2556) krites (Greek #2923) is a judge destitute of the legal knowledge and the moral sense and uprightness of character which are necessary to make a good judge. It is described by Theodoret as "the turn of the soul to the worse." The word he uses for turn is "rope" which means the turn of the balance. A man who is kakos (Greek #2556) is a man the swing of whose life is towards the worse. Kakia (Greek #2549) has been described as the essential viciousness which includes all vice and as the forerunner of all other sins. It is the degeneracy out of which all sins grow and in which all sins flourish.
Envy (phthonos, Greek #5355). There is a good and a bad envy. There is the envy which reveals to a man his own weakness and inadequacy, and which makes him eager to copy some great example. And there is the envy which is essentially a grudging thing. It looks at a fine person, and is not so much moved to aspire to that fineness, as to resent it. It is the most warped and twisted of human emotions.
Murder (phonos, Greek #5408). It has always to be remembered that Jesus immeasurably widened the scope of this word. He insisted that not only the deed of violence but the spirit of anger and hatred must be eliminated. He insisted that it is not enough only to keep from angry and savage action. It is enough only when even the desire and the anger are banished from the heart. We may never have struck a man in our lives, but who can say he never wanted to strike anyone? As Aquinas said long ago, "Man regardeth the deed, but God seeth the intention."
Strife (eris, Greek #2054). Its meaning is the contention which is born of envy, ambition, the desire for prestige, and place and prominence. It comes from the heart in which there is jealousy. If a man is cleansed of jealousy, he has gone far to being cleansed of all that arouses contention and strife. It is a God-given gift to be able to take as much pleasure in the successes of others as in one's own.
Deceit (dolos, Greek #1388). We best get the meaning of this from the corresponding verb (doloun, Greek #1389). Doloun has two characteristic usages. It is used of debasing precious metals and of adulterating wines. Dolos (Greek #1388) is deceit; it describes the quality of the man who has a tortuous and a twisted mind, who cannot act in a straightforward way, who stoops to devious and underhand methods to get his own way, who never does anything except with some kind of ulterior motive. It describes the crafty cunning of the plotting intriguer who is found in every community and every society.
The spirit which puts the worst construction on everything (kakoetheia, Greek #2550). Kakoetheia (Greek #2500) means literally evil-naturedness. At its widest it means malignity. Aristotle defined it in a narrower sense which it has always retained. He said it was "the spirit which always supposes the worst about other people." Pliny called it "malignity of interpretation." Jeremy Taylor said that it is "a baseness of nature by which we take things by the wrong handle, and expound things always in the worst sense." It may well be that this is the commonest of all sins. If there are two possible constructions to be put upon the action of any man, human nature will choose the worse. It is terrifying to think how many reputations have been murdered in gossip over the teacups, with people maliciously putting a wrong interpretation upon a completely innocent action. When we are tempted so to do, we ought to remember that God hears and remembers every word we speak.
Whisperers and slanderers (Psithuristes, Greek #5588 and katalalos, Greek #2637). These two words describe people with slanderous tongues; but there is a difference between them. Katalalos (Greek #2637), slanderer, describes the man who trumpets his slanders abroad; he quite openly makes his accusations and tells his tales--Psithuristes (Greek #5588) describes the man who whispers his malicious stories in the listener's ear, who takes a man apart into a corner and whispers a character-destroying story. Both are bad, but the whisperer is the worse. A man can at least defend himself against an open slander, but he is helpless against the secret whisperer who delights in destroying reputations.
Haters of God (theostugeis, Greek #2319). This describes the man who hates God because he knows that he is defying him. God is the barrier between him and his pleasures; he is the chain which keeps him from doing exactly as he likes. He would gladly eliminate God if he could, for to him a godless world would be one where he would have, not liberty, but licence.
Insolent men (hubristes, Greek #5197). Hubris (Greek #5196) was to the Greek the vice which supremely courted destruction at the hand of the gods. It has two main lines of thought in it. (i) It describes the spirit of the man who is so proud that he defies God. It is the insolent pride that goes before a fall. It is the forgetting that man is a creature. It is the spirit of the man who is so confident in his wealth, his power and his strength that he thinks that he can live life alone. (ii) It describes the man who is wantonly and sadistically cruel and insulting. Aristotle describes it as the spirit which harms and grieves someone else, not for the sake of revenge and not for any advantage that may be gained from it, but simply for the sheer pleasure of hurting. There are people who get pleasure from seeing someone wince at a cruel saying. There are people who take a devilish delight in inflicting mental and physical pain on others. That is hubris (Greek #5196); it is the sadism which finds delight in hurting others simply for the sake of hurting them.
Arrogant men (huperephanos, Greek #5244). This is the word which is three times used in scripture when it is said that God resists the proud. (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5; Proverbs 3:34.) Theophylact called it "the summit of all sins." Theophrastus was a Greek writer who wrote a series of famous character sketches, and he defined huperephania (Greek #5244) as "a certain contempt for everyone except oneself." He picks out the things in everyday life which are signs of this arrogance. The arrogant man, when he is asked to accept some office, refuses on the ground that he has not time to spare from his own business; he never looks at people on the street unless it pleases him to do so; he invites a man to a meal and then does not appear himself, but sends his servant to attend to his guest. His whole life is surrounded with an atmosphere of contempt and he delights to make others feet small.
Braggarts (alazon, Greek #213). Alazon is a word with an interesting history. It literally means one who wanders about. It then became the stock word for wandering quacks who boast of cures that they have worked, and for cheapjacks who boast that their wares have an excellence which they are far from possessing. The Greeks defined alazoneia (Greek #212) as the spirit which pretends to have what it has not. Xenophon said that the name belongs to those who pretend to be richer and braver than they are, and who promise to do what they are really unable to do in order to make some profit or gain. Again Theophrastus has a character study of such a man--the pretentious man, the snob. He is the kind of man who boasts of trade deals which exist only in his imagination, of connections with influential people which do not exist at all, of gifts to charities and public services which he never gave or rendered. He says about the house he lives in that it is really too small for him, and that he must buy a bigger one. The braggart is out to impress others--and the world is still full of his like.
Inventors of evil (epheuretes (Greek #2182) kakon, Greek #2556). The phrase describes the man who, so to speak, is not content with the usual, ordinary ways of sinning, but who seeks out new and recondite vices because he has grown blasι and seeks a new thrill in some new sin.
Disobedient to their parents (goneusin (Greek #1118) apeitheis, Greek #545). Both Jews and Romans set obedience to parents very high in the scale of virtues. It was one of the Ten Commandments that parents should be honoured. In the early days of the Roman Republic, the patria potestas, the father's power, was so absolute that he had the power of life and death over his family. The reason for including this sin here is that, once the bonds of the family are loosened, wholesale degeneracy must necessarily follow.
Senseless (asunetos, Greek #801). This word describes the man who is a fool, who cannot learn the lesson of experience, who will not use the mind and brain that God has given to him.
Breakers of agreements (asunthetos, Greek #802). This word would come with particular force to a Roman audience. In the great days of Rome, Roman honesty was a wonderful thing. A man's word was as good as his bond. That was in fact one of the great differences between the Roman and the Greek. The Greek was a born pilferer. The Greeks used to say that if a governor or official was entrusted with one talent--240 British pounds--even if there were ten clerks and accountants to check up on him, he was certain to succeed in embezzling some of it; while the Roman, whether as a magistrate in office or a general on a campaign, could deal with thousands of talents on his bare word alone, and never a penny went astray. By using this word, Paul was recalling the Romans not only to the Christian ethic, but to their own standards of honour in their greatest days.
Without natural affections (astorgos, Greek #794). Storge (compare Greek #794) was the special Greek word for family love. It was quite true that this was an age in which family love was dying. Never was the life of the child so precarious as at this time. Children were considered a misfortune. When a child was born, it was taken and laid at the father's feet. If the father lifted it up that meant that he acknowledged it. If he turned away and left it, the child was literally thrown out. There was never a night when there were not thirty or forty abandoned children left in the Roman forum. Even Seneca, great soul as he was, could write: "We kill a mad dog; we slaughter a fierce ox; we plunge the knife into sickly cattle lest they taint the herd; children who are born weakly and deformed we drown." The natural bonds of human affection had been destroyed.
Pitiless (aneleemon, Greek #415). There never was a time when human life was so cheap. A slave could be killed or tortured by his master, for he was only a thing and the law gave his master unlimited power over him. In a wealthy household a slave was bringing in a tray of crystal glasses. He stumbled and a glass fell and broke. There and then his master had him flung into the fish pond in the middle of the courtyard where the savage lampreys devoured his living flesh. It was an age pitiless in its very pleasures, for it was the great age of the gladiatorial games where people found their delight in seeing men kill each other. It was an age when the quality of mercy was gone.
Paul says one last thing about these people who have banished God from life. It usually happens that, even if a man is a sinner, he knows it, and, even if he allows something in himself, he knows that it is to be condemned in others. But in those days men had reached such a level that they sinned themselves and encouraged others to do so. George Bernard Shaw once said, "No nation has ever survived the loss of its gods." Here Paul has given us a terrible picture of what happens when men deliberately banish God from the reckoning, and, in due time, Rome perished. Disaster and degeneracy went hand in hand.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Romans 1". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
Saturday in Easter Week