A Commentary on Romans 1
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.
The Jews had quite a long history of settlement at Rome, going back to at least 139 BC. We know this because, according to the Roman historian Valerius Maximus, in 139 BC ‘the Jews had tried to corrupt Roman values with their cult of Jupiter Sabazius’, and had therefore all been expelled. How long the Jews had been in Rome before that is not known. (Rome came into existence around 753 BC, and the first Greek colony in Italy was at Cumae, near Naples, in 600 BC.) A major influx of Jews then occurred in 63 BC when Pompey returned from his campaign in Judea with slaves. The Jewish community seemed to thrive, with lots of slaves in time being granted freedom, and becoming libertini. In AD 19 in the reign of Tiberius there were some more problems and another expulsion order was issued, although this time the order was limited to 4000 Jews, the remainder being asked to renounce their faith. According to Dio Cassius, the problem this time was that the Jews were converting too many people. By AD 41 though Cassius tells us there were once again a very large number of Jews in Rome.
Between AD 33 and AD 49 a church was established in Rome, perhaps as early as AD 33, by the Roman Jews returning from Pentecost; the bible does not tell us precisely when the Church was started or by whom, other than it was not Paul, and it was obviously a well established and very flourishing Church by AD 49. Paul says (Romans 15:23) that he had been wanting to visit the Church in Rome for ‘polys etos’, ‘many years’, but that his ministry to the gentiles had got in the way. This seems to imply that the Church was in existence at least in AD 37 when Paul started his ministry. We also have the fact that Paul mentions some of the Church members being converted before himself. Romans 16:7: ‘Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me’. I suspect that the Church had been started in AD 33 by Jews returning from the Pentecost.
According to the Roman historian Suetonius, the emperor Claudius issued a decree in AD 49 that expelled all Jews from Rome. Acts 18 corroborates this, a reference is made to Paul meeting with Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth, who were in Corinth “because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome”. Suetonius records that the AD 49 expulsion came about “because they (the Jews) were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus.” As the historical records provide scant information, we are left to fill in the blanks. The most likely scenario is that the burgeoning church and the unbelieving Jews came into conflict. There were several synagogues in Rome, and most likely as the new church took root, and converts started leaving the synagogues, resentment grew, leading of course to the kinds of full scale mob disorder that we are familiar with from the apostles’ ministry. The Romans would not have been remotely interested in the whys and wherefores of the dispute, they would just have seen it as rioting, and thrown a blanket deportation order on all the Jews, Christians and non-Christians alike. The entire Jewish community, 40,000 – 50,000 people, were expelled in AD 49 according to the Roman historians, which begs the question of what proportion of them had at that point already converted to Christianity. Paul tells us here that their faith is now spoken of throughout the whole world, so I think can we conclude that a large number of the deportees were Christian Jews who were then scattered in exile throughout the entire Roman Empire. Deporting 50,000 people is actually quite a major logistics exercise. Maybe some were still slaves and were sold overseas. Maybe they just queued for boats of out of Rome. Maybe it was hurried, maybe it took place over months. Who knows? What we do know is that around 50,000 Jews were expelled, and that enough of that 50,000 were Christians to spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire, indeed, throughout the whole world according to Paul. In this one verse, Paul appears here to be referring to a very significant event in the life of the Early Church, one which had a massive positive impact on the growth of Christianity. Claudius was not a Christian, but he most certainly appears to have done the Church a huge service.
There is actually more to the history of the Roman Church, insofar as it had very close ties to the Church in Britain, which is really a separate issue for another study. What is clear is that Paul had a very high regard for the Church in Rome, and we do not see him upbraiding them in the way most of his epistles to the other churches centre around correcting error; quite the contrary, he speaks of a ‘mutual faith’, and thanks God that this same faith has gone to the whole world. Their faith clearly had his stamp of approval.
So, the nub of the matter is that in the fall out of the Claudian expulsion order, maybe as many as 50,000 Jews were expelled from Rome, a good portion of whom had already converted to Christianity, and they had, like blowing on a dandelion, been scattered all around the Roman Empire, where they were starting new churches, joining existing churches, and spreading the gospel. Nero who came to power in AD 54 apparently revoked the edict, so as Paul was writing in AD 57-58, we can surmise that by that time some or many of the expelled Jews had made their way back to the Church in Rome. [Of course, whilst the expulsion of the Jews gave rise to a great evangelistic wave around the world, it also meant that the remnant Church left in Rome for those 6 years had been entirely non-Jewish, which would undoubtedly at that time have made it quite unique.]
The Greek here is ‘ethnos’ which means Nations. The world, in Hebrew thought, is Israel and the Nations. So Paul is addressing the Romans as one of the many nations.
14-15 I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; [In plain English, “I have an obligation both to the Greeks and the Barbarians”] both to the wise, and to the unwise —hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
The language Paul uses here is very specific, and we need some background understanding of the terms to fully understand him.
The term ‘Barbarian’ has had a variety of connotations over time, but it originated in Greek thought, and it meant a non-Greek, or somebody outside the Greek empire, and somebody who was illiterate, uncultured, and whose speech was unintelligible. In the Roman empire of Paul’s day, it meant pretty much the same, either a non-Roman, or a non-Roman who was a citizen of the Empire, and a person with no education and culture. Paul uses the same term in Corinthians to indicate somebody who is unintelligible when they speak. As he qualifies the sentence with ‘both to the wise (learned) and the unwise (unlearned)’, he is making it totally unambiguous: he is referring to education and literacy here. The Greek is the educated literate person, and the Barbarian is the uneducated illiterate person. In fact Paul is making it doubly unambiguous, because he uses the term Greek rather than Roman where clearly Roman would be the normal word to use, as he was addressing a Roman audience. He is clearly telling us that the specific issue in view is literacy, education and culture, and he reinforces the point by saying it twice, to the Greek and to the Barbarian, and to the wise and to the unwise. It is in fact a slightly odd distinction, because everyone is either educated or uneducated. It is like saying, “I have a duty to preach to both men and to women, and therefore I have to come and preach to you”. When a great reasoner like Paul says something without much apparent logic like this, it gets our attention even more. Why did he do that? To emphasize to us that he is really bringing up a vital concept here, at the start of his epistle, and he does not want us to miss what he is saying, namely: Greek = literate, (& barbarian = illiterate). I am stressing this point because I have never read a commentary which catches this, and it is important, critical actually. These are not arbitrary terms Paul is using, and we will be somewhat lost, especially in the first three chapters, if we miss this point.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith
Many translations, like the KJV, are erroneous here, and mistranslate ‘Hellas’ in this verse as Gentiles. This has lead to one of the most prevalent and in many ways most pernicious misunderstandings in all of scripture. Namely that the Jews had pre-eminence in the Church in the eyes of Paul. This misunderstanding is then fleshed out with the fact that Paul’s first port of ministry call was always the synagogues, and then topped off with the triumphal flourish of Jesus’s statement, “Salvation is of the Jews”, as if anybody with the payot and a yarmulke merely has to look at us and we are all the holier for the experience. The trouble is, they have all got Paul completely back to front. There is no reason whatsoever to translate Hellas as gentiles. It means what it means, namely: Greek. Paul has already given us a very precise definition of what Greek means, two verses earlier, so to throw it away and introduce another totally alien definition here is beyond comprehension.
Why would Paul be ashamed of the gospel? It is a strange statement really, coming from a man who devoted his life to the gospel more than perhaps virtually any other, and who never shied away from declaring his faith. ‘From faith to faith’, ‘ek pistis eis pistis’ in Greek, means literally from the starting point of faith to the end point of faith. So what Paul is saying is that the gospel shows us how to live a righteous life, by showing us how to complete the faith journey, from start to finish. How does it do that? By the example of Christ, who was faithful unto death, (Rev 2:10). To be a real overcomer, we need to be faithful from start to finish. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:7-8, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness’. Finishing the race, going from start to finish, Paul equates with keeping the faith. That is what he is saying here. He is not ashamed of the gospel, because he has come up to its standard of righteousness. Or put another way, he has not fallen away when the going got tough.
His next point is to differentiate between Jews and Greeks, and by implication all others, (e.g. barbarians). So why ‘to the Jew first, and also to the Greek’, i.e. to the Jew and the Greek first? The common misconception here is that Paul is working to the same template as Jesus, and going to ‘his own’ first. But this is palpable nonsense. Any of the following reasons debunks it, take your pick.
Firstly, he is going to the Jews and the Greeks at the same time, giving them equivalency, so that reduces such an idea to a completely wrong reading of the text. (Does ‘blow it out of the water’ sound erudite enough?)
Secondly, if Paul was following Jesus’ lead, then he would have to, like Jesus, be shunning the nations, not going out to them, and he would also have to completely violate the angel’s instructions, which were “to go to Israel, Kings, and the Nations.” (Notwithstanding that Jesus had already completed that aspect of the covenant: Acts 13: 32-33: “And we declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers, God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again.” )
Thirdly, and equally damning of this false concept, Jesus quite simply did not go to the Jews first, he went to the whole House of Israel. So even if Paul were indeed extending the covenantal agreement, then he would need to go to all Israel first, not just the Jews.
So the question remains, what does Paul mean here? I believe that when we study Paul’s actions and thinking closely, we will see that several considerations governed his reasoning, and that he had in fact several motives for going to the Jews and Greeks first. However, in the showdown between Paul and Barnabas and the rabbis at Antioch of Pisidia, Paul and Barnabas declare, “it was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you,” the use of the word ‘necessary’ indicating that there was a compelling, binding obligation on Paul that overrode any of the other volitional elements of his decision making.
As we have already noted, Paul always went into the synagogues first whenever he arrived in a new place, a practice that many take to denote some sort of special concession to the Jews. The question is, why did he do this? Paul states that his mission field priority was to go where Christ had not been proclaimed, which seems to suggest his primary focus was universality, not exclusivity. Wherever he went then, he preached to everyone, according to his commission. We should also take note that Paul was not a freeloader, he did not sponge off the churches he set up; he was a skilled tentmaker and he ran his business wherever he went. This enabled him to contribute to the poor and needy on several occasions. As he worked during the week, he liked to go into the synagogue on Friday night, or Saturday morning, when he wasn’t working. This was his custom we are told, meaning either the custom he had followed his entire life, or his custom on entering a new locality, or both. Just because he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath, it does not mean that he was not simultaneously preaching to non-Jews when the occasion arose during the rest of the week. In fact we know he was, because we are told that he preached everywhere, not just in the synagogue.
Acts 17: 16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
We also know full well that the synagogue gave him direct access to the gentile community in the form of the Greek converts. However, the contentious point here is that Paul’s entire ministry throughout Acts features an itinerary apparently based around going from synagogue to synagogue, as if his primary focus was the Jews. In fact this central issue of Acts is fundamental to our understanding of many things in the post resurrection accounts of the New Testament, for not only was Paul funnelling all his activities through the synagogues, but the apostles maintained a Church HQ in Jerusalem, which was strictly conforming to Jewish practices, (who however Paul eventually came into conflict with).
To understand the bigger picture of what is going on here, we really need to understand the historical conditions of the Roman empire. It is worth recollecting the description of the Roman Empire from Daniel 7:
7 After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet.
The Roman Empire was uncompromisingly brutal, and brooked no dissent. The Roman laws against foreign religions prohibited worship of any gods other than the Roman gods. The only exception to this rule was the Jewish religion, which had been granted special status under Julius Caesar and Augustus, as a religion of great antiquity, and therefore synagogues were accorded the status of colleges rather than places of worship, so as to avoid breaching Roman Law, and Judaism was declared a ’religio licita’. When we understand this fact, much of the behaviour of the early church falls into place. The core issue here is that the church had to operate under the banner of Judaism to remain legal; if it severed its link with Judaism, it would have become an illegal affront to the Romans, and would have been outlawed and stamped out ruthlessly by Rome. Furthermore, the Church in Jerusalem was prophetically covenanted to remain in situ until AD 67, as per Daniel 9, so the Christian Church was covenantally unable to break away from Jerusalem at this point.
The Roman authorities of course had been established by God himself. The four beast kingdoms of Daniel were imposed on Judea as punishment, as the Jews were deemed unfit to govern themselves. We nowhere see Jesus or Paul break Roman Law. Paul explains in Romans 13 that the Roman authorities have been established by God, and that their laws need to be adhered to. So we now see why the early Christian church had to operate under the banner of Judaism as, for the Church to be legal, it had to identify itself as a branch of Judaism. So what we in effect have is the one living God being broadcast out of the defunct religion of Judaism. This is pictured for us in the riddle of Samson’s Lion, where bees and honey come from the carcass of the lion. The corpse of the lion represents Jerusalem and the Levitical system, the honey represents Christ’s work of salvation and the gospel of the new covenant, and the bees represent the predominantly Jewish ministers of the new covenant going out to all nations.
So now we have established the answer to the necessity of Paul going to the Jews, it was a legal necessity, and now we understand why Paul stressed the issue of learning in relation to the Greeks, as his ministry had to be conducted through the ‘Institutes of Higher Learning’ so to speak, under which proxy the synagogues operated.
Except that this is not the only necessity; Paul is not merely restrained by Roman Law, he is also governed by an even higher imperative.
The Torah was first translated from Hebrew into Greek by 70 scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, between 300-132 BC. Once the bible was available in Koine Greek, new vistas opened up for the Jews. I am not an expert on this period of history, so I cannot give more than a delineation of how the Greek empire was affected by Judaism, and vice versa, however, it is clear that a new branch of Judaism evolved, known as Hellenistic Judaism, and that where previously Israel and Judea had been relatively inward looking nations, Judea in the age of the Greek empire embraced Greek culture at the expense of Hebrew culture and started to expand its influence overseas. Once the bible was in the universal language of Greek, rather than parochial Hebrew, it became possible to spread the faith of Judaism. Alongside the incidences of proselytizing in Rome I have already mentioned, we have various biblical evidences of this also: At Pentecost we are told of Jews coming from Rome along with proselytes; we have Jesus haranguing the Pharisees for proselytizing abroad, (Matthew 23:15); and of course when Paul is on his missionary journeys, we see the synagogues replete with Greeks. So even if proselytizing was a subversive activity and therefore not well-documented, which I believe it may well have been as it is quite conceivable that Judaism was attempting to infiltrate itself as the official religion of the Roman Empire, we still have ample instances which demonstrate how major an operation it had become for the Jews.
As a monotheistic religion, grounded in the oracles of the Almighty, it was a very attractive religion to many educated Greeks, as they lost interest in their homespun polytheistic myths and sought for something of substance. The debates and conflicts over Judaizers in the church, for instance the attempt to get non-Israelite converts to Christianity to be circumcised, really reflect how extensive Judaic proselytization was, for in that instance, the convert very definitely had to be conformed to strict Judaic practices and rites. All in all we can see that the Jewish faith had very definitely spread its tentacles across the Roman empire and that Judaism had embraced both Greek culture and a lot of non Jews into its ranks. Peter said it was impossible keeping up with the Law as an ethnic Hebrew, so unless you knew Greek, and could study the Koine Bible, you clearly had no chance as a foreigner. So the Koine Bible was undoubtedly a tool for proselytization, and Greek itself was the language of proselytization.
Now we can review Paul’s comments and understand better what he is saying. If the synagogues were a mixture of ethnic Jews and converted Greeks, (Greek speakers), why would this have been a problem to Paul?
The problem arises because God had made a very clear adjudication against Judah and Jerusalem during the time of Daniel and King Cyrus almost 700 years previously, which entailed a very serious judgement; this judgement was prescribed solely for the Jews, those at least who chose to reject him, and the Greeks were nothing whatsoever to do with it. God had no axe to grind with them, they were not the objects of his wrath, and he had no desire for them to be caught up in the pending judgement of Jerusalem. If a Greek went up to Jerusalem for a festival and got entrapped in the judgement, this would have been a travesty of justice, and God hates injustice. Now we can understand exactly what Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees really meant:
Matthew 23 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
The biblical penalty for theft was double repayment. What Jesus was saying was that the Pharisees were stealing people and turning them into ‘huios geena’, sons of destruction. Literally, they were being illicitly brought (i.e. stolen) into the destruction of Jerusalem.
So when Paul spoke of being under a binding obligation (‘opheiletes’) to the Greeks (and Barbarians), he meant that his duty, by divine ordination, was to rescue certain people from misjudgement.
So now we can fully see Paul’s obligations for what they are, both a legal necessity to be compliant with Roman Law, and an absolute necessity from the throne of judgement in heaven, the latter clearly being superior in force than the former, but both being of great importance. Once we understand these two reasons, we can frame things in their proper perspective. The overarching spiritual necessity and focus of Paul’s ministry was to rescue Greeks from Judaism, because of the threat of accidental judgement. So when Paul spoke of his ‘ministry to the uncircumcised’, he was not in fact being disingenuous; his primary focus was the gentiles, the Greeks in this instance, and the Jews were really a necessary conduit he had to go through to reach his target audience.
Secondary to both of these imperatives, Paul may have had other personal and practical motives. The synagogues were a rich field for ministry, as the Greeks were there already. He clearly had a heart for the Jews, as he states that he wishes he could be accursed for them; he wanted them to convert, and reckoned that if they saw Greeks flocking from Judaism to Christ, they would get envious and want to be part of the action. But these are not his primary drivers; this is just Paul the pragmatist at work, looking for an opportunity in every situation. When we come to Chapter 2 of Romans, we will see him spell it out clearly; the issue is wrath and glory. It is a case of either being ensnared in the judgement of Judea and Jerusalem, or not.
At a different level, Paul was in a serious war with Hellenistic Judaism. The Jews were the enemies of the Gospel. Every Jew and Greek converted was really a treble victory, because on top of bringing someone into the kingdom, he had also nullified their missionary activity in the wrong direction, and brought their missionary zeal over to Christ’s side. He was in a spiritual conflict with Judaism, and out of the necessity of being in the synagogues, he tried to construct a battle plan to suit, but this is not to be confused with the two aforesaid absolute factors governing his behaviour.
If we read Hebrews 11-12, we can more fully understand what Paul means by ‘from (the starting point of) faith to (the end point of ) faith’ – we can even say, get a different perspective – as Paul is in fact using language in a polysemous way here; that is to say, within one phrase or sentence, the language has the ability to express separate thoughts and lines of reasoning. At one level he is talking about the individual faith race that we all run, but he is also talking about faith in its two main different historical stages, the faith of Christ promised, (the prophets and the Law) and the faith of Christ revealed (the gospel), which is the same faith, but in different stages of development. When we read back his words in this light, they have an entirely different hue. He is saying that the gospel is the hope of Israel and the patriarchs made manifest. The faith which was once the expectation of a Messiah has now become faith in the completed work of Christ; we have gone from the old covenant to the gospel, but the common thread is faith. He then quotes Habakkuk the old testament prophet to prove the connection.
17 as it is written,“The just shall live by faith.”
When God told Habakkuk around 610 BC of the impending invasion of Judea by the Babylonians, and of how brutal it would be, Habakkuk complained to God that the judgement being meted out was so draconian, so ferocious, that it was way out of proportion with the sins of Judah. God told him that it was commensurate with their crimes, but that the judgement would not be applied indiscriminately, that the ‘just would live by faith’, which meant that the righteous would not be swept up in the judgement. So Paul is painting a historical picture in a few words here, through allusion, and is using this picture to make several points; he is saying:
1) That the process of judgement that God initiated against Judea in 608 BC is still ongoing
2) That the same principles that applied then still apply now; judgement on the reprobate, judgement passing over the righteous
3) That God’s assurances are true; the righteous Jews were spared during the invasion of Babylon
4) That the fulfilment of Jesus’ coming validates the faith of the believers of that previous era; in fact both faiths mutually reinforce each other. The proof of the gospel bears witness to the faith of those who believed Moses and the prophets.
5) That the Babylonian invasion of 608 BC parallels the imminent judgement on Jerusalem, (not excepting that the coming judgement was the most savage of all)
So Paul is really delivering a message at several levels to the Christian Jews here, and his overriding purpose is to encourage them to the greatest degree possible to be like him, to hold firm in their faith, not to be shaken out by the Judaizers, as the consequences of falling at this point are very grave. Just as the Jews fell into two camps in the time of Habakkuk, those who fell under judgement and those who escaped judgement, exactly the same process is about to be re-enacted when the Roman troops enter Jerusalem to complete the judgements decreed by God on the city. The bottom line is that the judgement period is all one and the same; this is all judgement within the terms of the original 70 year exile and subsequent period of Daniel’s 70 weeks, so Paul is giving a firm reassurance to the true faithful, and the sternest of warnings to the reprobate. He then wastes no time elaborating on the consequences of rejecting Jesus.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness
Verses 18-32 cover one central theme, the unrighteousness of Israel, but really here, the Jews. Paul introduces the main concept in verse 18. The way Paul launches into the subject conveys a sense of great urgency. Throughout his letter we will see him addressing different audiences, but here he is speaking loud and clear to apostate Judaism, because the judgement of Jerusalem is very close at hand, (ten years or so away to be precise). As we unwrap these verses, we will find a bewildering amount of information densely compacted in just a few hundred words.
The wrath of God obviously refers to the impending judgements on Jerusalem and Judea, ‘the truth’ here being the Torah, and ‘ungodliness and unrighteousness’ is the rejection of Christ. Paul is talking very specifically about and to apostate Judaism, which itself is really the main theme of the entire letter to the Romans.
19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them
He is referring here to the Law and the Prophets, the miracles coming out of Egypt, Israel encountering God at Mount Sinai, Moses radiating God, Abraham meeting with Jesus; in short, Israel’s entire close relationship with God. Of course, most specifically, he is referring to the second commandment, the prohibition on idolatry: (Exodus 20: 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.)
20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse;
In verse 20 we have another example of Paul using polysemy; he is reasoning on multiple levels in the same expression. In one sense he is layering his argument as if presenting a legal case against Israel. So he is adding to the first witness against them – God known by direct personal revelation – a second witness: God known through the natural order. The point of this becomes clear later as he develops his argument.
However he has a second meaning here. Although in verse 19 the entirety of Israel’s relationship with God, including all of the scripture delivered to them, was in view, Paul now gets into specifics, he is referring to particular natural events throughout the lifespan of the world that are depicted in Scripture, not just the giving of the Law. Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are surely the two most obvious examples of God’s divine power and judgement in view. However, there is a third layer of meaning here, as he is not only referring to Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as biblical lessons to Israel, he is also referring to them as global events of global significance. Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed at the same time Abraham received the blessings and covenants of God. The reason for this is that the destruction of those five cities was a universal lesson, a warning to all humanity of the extreme sinfulness of homosexuality. Sodom and Gomorrah were the epicentre of global trade in 3000 BC, at the heart of a nexus of trade routes that ran north and south, east and west. It was in fact the centre of the bitumen trade, and bitumen was as important in 3000 BC as petrol is today. (Bitumen was used as mortar in the Tower of Babel for instance). So what was happening was that businessmen and travellers coming to the area, either in transit or for trade reasons, were being homosexually raped and then murdered. The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah had reached heaven, and everyone worldwide would have been aware of its reputation. Consequently, when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, it was a message to all mankind, in the form of a natural event, that was globally received and understood.
21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
There are several passages in the bible which refer to the Israelites worshipping the Egyptian gods after they came out of Egypt, e.g. Ezekiel 20:6-9. When they created the golden calf, this was a representation of Apis, the calf god. All the deities Paul refers to can be found in the Egyptian pantheon, (e.g. Horus, Thoth, Apep, Sobek, Amun). If you visit Mount Sinai today you will find depictions of deities such as Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love, engraved on the stones of the massive altar to the golden calf. Paul had personally visited the site of course, and had seen first hand the evidences of the apostasy, and so was relating them from first-hand experience. Israel’s apostasy of course was not limited to the wilderness, far from it, it was a constant in their behaviour and is the very reason why God had been passing judgements on them since the expulsion of Israel from the land. However we will see that Paul is using the events on Mount Sinai as a particular pattern with implications for the present.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Paul now gives us two pericopes, the first is from verses 24-25, the second from verses 26-27 which runs through to the end of the chapter. Here in the first pericope Paul is specifically citing the idolatry at Mount Sinai, which ended with the Israelites stripping naked and going wild, (Exodus 32); I interpret this to mean husbands and wives having sex in public, no more than this. Now what we must understand at this point is that Paul is making a very serious point of discriminating between two different events, described in the two different pericopes. Egypt, though totally pagan, did not, like Babylon, have a cult of male temple prostitutes and a culture of homosexuality. This is a very significant difference between Egypt and Babylon actually. That is why in Revelation when Jesus is describing earthly Jerusalem (apostate Judaism) as a house of bondage and homosexuality, he does so with the composite of Egypt and Sodom, because there was no Sodom element within Egypt.
8 and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.
The reason for there being no Sodom element in Egypt was, as I have already explained, because the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in 1848 BC, the same year Abraham was circumcised, had sent a message that even pagan nations understood; they fully understood the natural order, as expressed in verse 20, and understood that homosexuality was totally wrong, and they did not practice it. So if pagan nations did not practice it, that is why Israel was as Paul says, totally ‘without excuse’ in the matter. The deeper reason for pagan nations not practicing it, quite apart from God really hating it, was that God did not want to subject Israel to that when they were in bondage. That is why he had sent an edict round the world in 1848 BC making his feelings clear in the matter.
So when Moses went up Mount Sinai, and the Israelites started worshipping the golden calf, and engaging in all manner of degeneracy, homosexuality was absolutely not in the picture. Israel was taking part in Egyptian practices, (serving Egyptian gods, like Hother, the goddess of sex and fertility rites), but they had not learned homosexuality from the Egyptians. So when Paul says God permitted them to permit themselves to do vile things, “paradidōmi autos paradidōmi”, (“God gave them up”), he literally means that they were sinning within parameters strictly controlled by God.
So now we can see why, in the middle of all this degeneracy, Paul suddenly blesses God. He is praising God because the level of degeneracy does not involve homosexuality, and he is also praising God that enslavement in Egypt did not involve exposure to this perversion. That is why he praises God as the Creator; God’s creative natural order was intact.
Put quite simply, whilst certain heterosexual acts may break Mosaic law, and be worthy of the death penalty, they do not infringe the natural order; the act of copulation is within God’s natural procreative order, whereas any homosexual act is not. The fact that Paul praises God after describing a shameful episode shows with radical force the extent to which God despises homosexuality, which he views as an abomination.
So clearly there is a big demarcation between the first and second pericopes, and even if one has never read Romans, one can probably anticipate already where the second pericope is going. Verses 26-32, describes a situation where the idolatry extends to homosexuality, and then a whole range of other unpleasant and ungodly attributes associated with a darkened, ‘reprobate’, mind, are enumerated.
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
So now in the second pericope we have moved past the original apostasy in Sinai, and on to the ongoing apostasies of Israel throughout their history. When Paul cites ‘this reason’, he means the same reasons are still in force, Israel has experienced the miracles coming out of Egypt, seen God at Mount Sinai, seen Moses radiating God, received the Law, experienced the natural order of things which even the gentile nations understand, but we can now add another reason. At Sinai, God had wanted to destroy all Israel, but then the Levites stood up for God, and went through the camp slaughtering the idolators. Really then this means that there were three types of people at Sinai: the good, the bad, and the indifferent; those who stood for God, the rebellious idolators, and the lukewarm, sitting on the fence, types. This is important to understand, and is demonstrated by the Levites gaining great prestige from this point forward, culminating in being treated as the firstfruits of all Israel, in lieu of all the firstborn. This was called the Levitical Covenant – see my study, ‘The Fig Tree”, which was struck shortly afterwards. As Paul says, all Israel’s idolatry and apostasy also stems in part from the first apostasy; what he is saying is that not taking a stand ultimately works out badly, you are either for God or against God, there is no in-between, and any attempt to sit on the fence eventually leads to falling onto the wrong side. The lukewarm Israelites at Sinai who neither practiced idolatry nor condemned it, were just idolators in waiting, the next generation of idolators in the making.
In the description of the second apostasy, we now see that God abandons those in apostasy fully to their darkened minds. The only reason why they did not embrace homosexuality before was that they had not been exposed to it, but now God removes all restraint. Again Paul uses the same construct, “paradidōmi autos paradidōmi”, to indicate that left to themselves, the only restraining force is one God puts there, and that now God has removed the covering, Israel is exposed to homosexuality too. In this second pericope Paul is now talking about the apostasies of Israel throughout their history, after Sinai. (When Israel encountered the pagan religions of Canaan, they encountered all sorts of horrific perversions, far unlike anything seen in Egypt; so now the same sitting on the fence attitude would have much more pernicious consequences than a wild love feast, that looks rather tame compared to burying children alive, burning children in the fire to Moloch, and so forth. The point to understand is Israel needed either to oppose the idolatrous practices of the countries they came in contact with, or not. They had to have the right mindset, regardless of the nature and extent of the idolatry. Egypt by and large sounded quite civilized, in inverted commas, which is why the Israelites hankered after its high quality of living.)
Regarding actual instances of homosexuality and apostasy following Sinai, the best example of this is the case of the Benjaminites at Gibeah who wanted to rape a Levite, (Judges 19). Even though this appalled the rest of the tribes, and they sought to wipe out Benjamin, Hosea tells us that this was not an isolated occurrence in Israel, and that the idolatry of Ephraim, which was the reason for Northern Kingdom being annulled and scattered by God, had sunk to the very depths of depravity, insofar as they too had starting practicing homosexuality,(Hosea 9:9). It is also mentioned in regard to the tribe of Judah in Kings.
Paul concludes the chapter with a list of Godless traits that accompany the rejection of God and the embracing of a homosexual lifestyle. It is important to understand that homosexuality is the effect here, the cause is Godlessness. Out of Godlessness comes a host of evil traits, amongst which is sexual deviancy.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10 (and Romans 15) that all the events described in the Old Testament are put there for our learning.
11 Now all these things happened unto them for examples (‘typos’) : and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.
By ‘typos’ he means ‘patterns’, ‘exemplars’, ’outlines’, ‘charcoal sketches’. Some people say ‘types and shadows’.
The main type he is adumbrating here is of Israel immediately after receiving their covenant falling into an apostasy under their previous bondage state, Egypt. Applying the same pattern to his generation, he is obviously referring to the Jews (Israel) receiving the new covenant of grace in Christ’s ministry, and rejecting it in favour of their previous subjection, namely bondage to the Law.
The next type he draws is of Israel falling twice, as in the two pericopes, first soft, the second time, hard. The pattern he is drawing here is of Israel rejecting God twice; the first time when they had him crucified, the second when they reject him in the period of grace and repentance prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.
Matthew 24 44 And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.
The first fall, as Peter explains in Acts 3:17, is a sin of ignorance. This is, literally, a trip. All the Jews needed to do was get back up on their feet, repent and accept Christ. The second fall of course was much more serious, as instead of merely tripping over the (corner)-stone, the stone would now fall on the unrepentant Jews. Paul is making two points really; firstly, the idolatry that lead to Jesus’ crucifixion, the worship of the Law, (the worship of the created thing, the ‘creature’, over the Creator – who is blessed forever whereas being under the Law is being under a curse), naturally leads to the second phase of idolatry, rejecting Christ outright. Just as to have avoided later apostasy in the old covenant, you really needed to take a stand for God at the outset at the first apostasy, the only way to escape the coming judgement of Jerusalem is to repent of the first apostasy, the killing of Christ. The first leads to the second; repent of killing Jesus and you will naturally embrace his grace and salvation. Remain obdurate on the killing of Jesus, unable to accept that you messed up, and then you cannot advance any further. The second point is that in the second fall, the Northern kingdom of Israel was scattered and all idolators were put to death. This of course is the exact same fate that awaits unrepentant Jewry in the imminent judgement of Judea and Jerusalem, along of course with the subsequent diaspora.
Another pattern Paul brings out is this: When Israel first came into contact with God on Mount Sinai, they promptly rejected him, turned to worshipping strange Gods, and fell into, partly as a direct consequence of their first apostasy, all sorts of apostasies that blighted their entire history. After the apostasy of Sinai came the apostasy of Baal-Peor, then Israel was in permanent apostasy, then the Northern kingdom was divorced by God, then the southern Kingdom fell into apostasy, until here we are in 57 AD staring down the barrel at the last scrapings of National Israel. Once the final punishment has been meted out, that will be it. It was over 1500 years from the apostasy of Mount Sinai to the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of national Israel. Paul is implying the same fate awaits Jews who do not accept Christ now, in this season, that it will have profound long-term consequences.
Drawing all these threads together, we need to understand the real underlying purpose of Paul’s letter. Who the letter is aimed at, and why. Obviously this epistle has many many purposes of God, of which I am clueless, but I just mean the most pressing concern of Paul when he wrote it. The letter was written around 57 AD; the judgement of Jerusalem and Judea would come into full and final force in 67 AD, when the Roman troops began their sacking of Jerusalem in earnest, and Judea would witness the great civil war prior to the termination of the old covenant in 73 AD. When the Church left Jerusalem around 66/67 AD that would be it for the Jews. Their last chance to repent was gone. Their repentance period, their 40 years of Nineveh, was actually from 27-67 AD, from the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry to the church leaving Jerusalem.
As I have already explored, the church at Rome was deeply interconnected with all the churches throughout the Roman Empire as a result of the Claudian expulsion. Having previously been exiled throughout the empire, and by 57 AD now returned to Rome, the Jewish christians in Rome had formed a strong network of connections with all the outlying churches scattered worldwide. In writing to the church in Rome, Paul was in a sense networking. He was leveraging the communication resources of the Roman church, for they could now reproduce his epistle, and send it out far and wide, no doubt with clarifications and explanatory help where necessary. So in effect he was delegating his ministry to the Jews, who he wanted to save from the coming judgement, to the Church in Rome.
As we have already explored, this was as much a ministry to the Greeks as to the Jews, primarily to disentangle them from the judgement on the Jews, but also in another sense, this was a ministry of literacy. The gospel was written in Greek, Paul’s letters were written in Greek, and whilst Paul was making no spiritual distinction whatsoever between Greek and Barbarian, it was inevitable that the gospel would be leveraged by literacy, and therefore in many cases received first by the literate, ‘the Greek’.
Although Paul’s writing is full of allusion and rich in meaning, we need to be aware of what his main, most serious point of all is in the first chapter. Paul ultimately is saying that Judaism is itself apostasy; it is idol worship, the idol is the Law. The penalty for apostasy is death, stoning to death to be precise, which is why Jesus promised to destroy the temple, and fall on them and crush them to death.
Of course the most shocking message of all that Paul is sending is that the net effect of continuing in apostasy for the Jews will be to embrace the culture of homosexuality within Judaism. Looking at the 21st Century Western world, we may not find this a surprise; Hollywood, Jewish values, and homosexuality are all joined at the hip. But when Paul was writing I imagine that this would have been considerably less evident. Greek culture has always been steeped in homosexuality, and Babylon too was likewise. But I doubt the Jews in the first Century saw homosexuality as anything other than something extraneous to Judaism, a gentile quirk. However, in embracing Hellenism, Judaism was whether they knew it or not, embracing their values, their idols, and Paul could see this, with spiritual and prophetic clarity. (Of course, not all Jews in the first Century accepted Hellenistic Judaism, but it is academic, as the dominant Judaism is now Hellenistic Judaism.)
Hellenistic Judaism was really birthed, nurtured and developed in Egypt. The Septuagint itself was written in Alexandria. So when Paul talks about the apostasy of Egyptian idols in Sinai, and how this apostasy was the formative apostasy for all Israel’s later apostasies under the old covenant, he is using it as a pattern for Judaism in the new covenant age. He is saying that the new Egypt is Greece, and Grecian idols will be the core identity around which judaism revolves. The apostasy of Greek culture will be the dominant flavour of Judaism. In short, he is saying that homosexuality is now embedded in and the defining characteristic of Judaism. There probably could be no more shocking message he could deliver to the Jews still under the Law. As I have said, his message his strong, clear, and urgent.