Romans 1:18-32 helps to set the stage for the rest of Romans, and makes points about how God works in history that reverberate throughout the rest of the book, particularly chapters 9 – 11.
(Rom 1:18-19) The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men 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.
We tend to think of God’s wrath as something that happens at the end of time — and it will. It certainly will. But Paul says God’s wrath is already being revealed against all godlessness and wickedness.
He also says it’s quite fair because God’s may be known.
(Rom 1:20) 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 men are without excuse.
Paul argues that God may be known from what he has made — just as you know much about me from my writing and would learn a great deal from a painter by viewing his paintings. (But that’s a topic for another day … )
(Rom 1:21-23) 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 mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Those who should know God — and even many who actually knew God — rejected him, preferring idols.
(Rom 1:24) Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.
“Gave them over” is quite a controversial term, but the Greek is plain enough. Paradinomi is used elsewhere in Romans as follows:
(Rom 4:25) He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
(Rom 8:32) He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
The thought is that God allowed the world to become this way — but with that being his purpose. God didn’t crucify Jesus, but he delivered Jesus to the authorities full well knowing — and intending — that Jesus be crucified. In other words, God allows the idolaters to behave as they do because that’s the result God intends — but it’s not contrary to their will, any more than Jesus’ crucifixion was contrary to the will of the Romans and Jewish authorities.
This is what life is like without God — when God abandons you.
(Rom 1:25-27) They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural 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 indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
Paul sees homosexual behavior as evidence of God’s giving up on these people. They became so distant from God that they left the bounds of nature.
Remember that Paul has just argued that nature reveals “what may be known about God.” Leaving God therefore means leaving nature, that is, leaving God means exceeding the boundaries he made for our own good.
(Rom 1:28-31) Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to 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 are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 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.
In the next few verses, Paul explains how our moral nature should tell us that immorality is wrong. If you don’t want to be murdered, what makes you think it’s okay to murder others? If you want your children to obey you, why would you think it’s okay to disobey your parents?
The degree of the perversion is shown by a society that approves of these things. In fact, the NIV softens the message. “Approve” really means “takes pleasure.” Society not only permitted these things, it celebrated these things!
And, of course, this is a very accurate description of the Roman world. The government supported and encouraged idolatrous worship, which included prostitution, hetero- and homo-sexual, bestiality, and orgies. The world was a mess.
But Paul doesn’t say that he is speaking solely of Gentiles. Indeed, he borrows language from the Old Testament that refers to the Jews!
(Psa 106:36-42) They worshiped their idols, which became a snare to them. 37 They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons. 38 They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by their blood. 39 They defiled themselves by what they did; by their deeds they prostituted themselves. 40 Therefore the LORD was angry with his people and abhorred his inheritance. 41 He handed them over to the nations, and their foes ruled over them. 42 Their enemies oppressed them and subjected them to their power.
And so we see part of what Paul means by “the wrath of God is being revealed”! The Jews are already suffering the consequence of the sins they share with the Gentiles. God is punishing them first! (Also Acts 7:42.)
(Rom 2:9) There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile … .
Take a step back and ponder this. How does God deal with sinners who reject him? Well, sometimes he withdraws from them and so allows their sin to become even greater. Sometimes, he so withdraws from them that they allow themselves to be destroyed by their sins!
Thus, as we’ll see, when the Judeans had become idolatrous, God withdrew from them, allowing them to make the foolish decisions that led to Nebuchadnezzar’s slaughter of thousands and destruction of the temple. God let it happen, and by withdrawing, allowed sin to produce sin’s natural results. But God did not prevent penitence. In fact, some did honor God.
During the time of the apostles, how do we imagine God dealt with the Jews who rejected Jesus? Did he harden their hearts so they couldn’t accept Jesus? Or did he withdraw from them so that their faithlessness — their reliance on their own hands to bring about their own salvation — would lead to its natural conclusion?
All of which produces a difficult question: How was the sin of the Jews in the First Century the moral equivalent of the sin of the Jews at the time of Nebuchadnezzar? The answer has to be that rejecting God’s Messiah is the moral equivalent of idolatry. After Jesus is God incarnate. To reject Jesus is to reject God.