NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ONE (Part XX)
Bible scholar Douglas Moo adds this comment: “It is vital if we are to understand Paul’s gospel and his urgency in preaching it to realize that natural revelation leads not to salvation but to the demonstration that God’s condemnation is just: people are ‘without excuse.’ That verdict stands over the people we meet every day just as much as over the people Paul rubbed shoulders with in the first century, and our urgency in communicating the gospel should be as great as Paul’s.”1
And Jewish scholar David Stern shares his view of what Paul has said here: “If you do not know God, it is not God’s fault but yours. The characteristics of God that make His existence self-evident, His eternal power, and His divine nature, are known to you because God has made it plain to you. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork. Each day utters speech, and each night expresses knowledge.’2 Therefore, ‘Only the fool has said in his heart, There is no God’3 — not meaning ‘No God exists,’ but ‘No God exists who actively concerns Himself with people’s thoughts and deeds and judges them.’ This is as close as the Bible comes to ‘proving the existence of God,’ for there is no reason why it should prove it. Rather, it takes effort for sinners to ignore God; defense mechanisms require active energy for their maintenance by people who in their wickedness keep suppressing the truth. Or, as the prophet put it centuries earlier, ‘Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God.’4 In sum, since you already know enough to trust God and obey Him, you have no excuse for not doing so.”5
Verse 21: When they discovered there was a God, they refused to honor Him as God or even acknowledge His existence. Instead, they preferred the silly figments of their imagination. As a result, their foolish hearts were filled with even more ignorance.
After starting with the evidence of a Creator right before their eyes, Paul moves on to point out that many of the heathen nations had done the exact thing God warned His own children not to do: “Be careful when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon, and the stars—all the many things in the sky. Be careful that you are not tempted to worship and serve them.”6 Even the earliest patriarchs knew this was wrong. Said Job: “I was never foolish enough to worship the sun and the moon. This is also a sin that must be punished. If I had worshiped them, I would have been unfaithful to God All-Powerful.”7 And Paul’s point is, these things are there to direct those people who worship creation to start worshiping the Creator.
Paul shows that he was not convinced by those philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens knew the real and living God even though they had an altar to Him.8 The apostle John put it this way: “They will be judged by this fact: The Light came into the world. But they did not want Light. They wanted darkness to hide the evil things the were doing.”9 These people could not see what David saw: “My LORD, there is no God like you. No one can do the things that you have done.”10 But one day, all the world will hear these words: “Fear God and give Him praise. The time has come for God to judge all people. Worship God. He made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the springs of water.”11
Making handmade objects to represent deities was not new. As a Jew, Paul knew it was an epidemic among his own ancestors. In the Old Testament, we read: “The people would not listen. They were very stubborn like their ancestors. Their ancestors did not trust in the Lord their God. They refused to follow His laws and the agreement He made with their ancestors. They would not listen to His warnings. They worshiped idols that were worth nothing and so they themselves became worth nothing.”12
By the time God called Isaiah to go preach to His people, things had only gotten worse: “All the work of idol-makers amounts to nothing; their precious productions profit no one. And it is a shame that the people who worship these idols don’t even see this or understand.”13 In fact, the LORD spoke to the prophet Jeremiah and pointed out a tradition that is still with us today, even among Christians: “They cut down a tree in the forest…They decorate it with gold and silver and then fasten it securely with hammer and nails so it won’t fall over.”14 This is done as part of the celebration of Jesus’ birth. In some cases, the tree gets more attention than the One whose birth is supposedly being honored. There is nothing wrong with having a decorated tree in your living room at Christmas time, as long as you know you are using a heathen symbol to give honor to the new born King.
There is an interesting section in St. Augustine’s writings that deals with how the Jews were viewed by the Romans. He is quoting the Stoic philosopher Seneca who lived during the time of Christ and Paul. Augustine writes:
Seneca, among the other superstitions of civil theology, also found fault with the sacred things of the Jews, and especially the Sabbaths, affirming that they act uselessly in keeping those seventh days, whereby they lose through idleness about the seventh part of their life, and also many things which demand immediate attention are damaged…When he was speaking concerning those Jews, he [Seneca] said, “When, meanwhile, the customs of that most accursed nation have gained such strength that they have been now received in all lands, the conquered have given laws to the conquerors.” By these words he expresses his astonishment; and, not knowing what the providence of God was leading him to say, subjoins in plain words an opinion by which he showed what he thought about the meaning of those sacred institutions: “For,” he says, “those, however, know the cause of their rites, whilst the greater part of the people know not why they perform theirs.” But concerning the solemnities of the Jews, either why or how far they were instituted by divine authority, and afterwards, in due time, by the same authority taken away from the people of God, to whom the mystery of eternal life was revealed, we have both spoken elsewhere, especially when we were treating against the Manichaeans, and also intend to speak in this work in a more suitable place.15
No wonder the apostle Paul was so perturbed by what was happening around him, not only among the Greek and Barbarians but also among his fellow Jews. He was in no mood to simply dismiss their refusal to honor God as some small misdemeanor. To him, it mattered greatly because they were trying to replace the unseen God with objects of their own making. Not only that but attempting to infuse divine powers into these idols made of earthly materials. So he continues with his condemnation of such foolishness.
Several early church scholars had comments on this subject. One of them said: “Imagining that they could grasp God with their minds, they fell away from their natural instinct and worshiped creatures instead of the Creator.”16 And one bishop, known as a good pastor, had this point to make: “In the hearts of the Gentiles, the purest honoring of the one God was changed into the bloody worship of different gods.”17 Then, a lay member of the early church who was also a theologian adds this: “It is well known how Greek schools and Roman eloquence and the search of the whole world in the quest of the supreme good, with the most penetrating study and outstanding ability, accomplished nothing by their labor except to become “futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.”18
The church Patriarch of Constantinople offers this insight from his day: “The pagans knew that there was a God, and it is clear that they did not receive judgment because of this. For it was not for want of knowledge that they were condemned, but the opposite. For each one glorified God in whatever sense they thought the god was that they served. Thus they corrupted the whole matter by their peculiar and mistaken ideas. They abandoned God’s way of knowing Him and preferred their own, falling into the deepest imbecility, outdoing themselves in their so-called wisdom by adding to their foolishness, descending to the worship of reptiles and inanimate objects.”19
Reformer Martin Luther has an interesting illustration to explain what Paul says the heathens did with what they could observe as evidence of a supreme God in the universe. He said it was a lot like a fool looking for some income by trying to find a job, but only to get credit for looking. Then, once an employer is found, shows no interest in accepting the job and earning the money. Luther put it this way: “Likewise the heathens, though they knew about God, were satisfied with and gloried in the mere knowledge about Him. But they put out of mind His worship, in particular, the inward dedication to God, whom they acknowledged.”20
John Calvin comments on the fact that although mankind was seeing evidence of God, they refused to believe what they were seeing. He writes: “No idea can be formed of God without including His eternity, power, wisdom, goodness, truth, righteousness, and mercy. His eternity appears evident, because He is the maker of all things — His power, because He holds all things in His hand and continues their existence — His wisdom, because He has arranged things in such an exquisite order — His goodness, for there is no other cause than Himself, why He created all things, and no other reason, why He should be inspired to preserve them — His justice, because in His government He punishes the guilty and defends the innocent — His mercy, because He bears with so much patience the perversity of men — and His truth, because He is unchangeable. He then who has a right notion of God ought to give Him the praise due to His eternity, wisdom, goodness, and justice.”21
And Charles Hodge adds this thought: “We find throughout the Scriptures the idea of foolishness and sin, and wisdom and piety, intimately connected. In the language of the Bible, a fool is an impious man; the wise are the pious, [to] those who fear God; foolishness is sin; understanding is religion. The folly and darkness of which the apostle here speaks are therefore expressive of lack of divine knowledge, which is both the effect and cause of moral depravity.”22
1 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 106
2 Psalm 19:1-2, (19:2–3, Jewish Bible)
3 Psalm 14:1; 53:1 (53:2, Jewish Bible)
4 Isaiah 59:2
5 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Deuteronomy 4:19
7 Job 31:27-28
8 Acts of the Apostles 17:23
9 Ibid. 3:19
10 Psalm 86:8
11 Revelation 14:7
12 2 Kings 17:14-15; Cf. Jeremiah 2:5
13 Isaiah 44:9
14 Jeremiah 10:3-4
15 St. Augustine: City of God, Ch. 11, Skyros Publishing, p. 178
16 Pelagius: Commentary on Romans, loc. cit.
17 Caesaius of Arles: Sermon 100a.2
18 Prosper of Aquitain: Grace and Free Will 12.4
19 Gennadius of Constantinople: Pauline Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 44
21 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit.
22 Charles Hodge: On Romans, loc. cit.