Week Two – Romans 1:17- 2:29
What do the following celebrities have in common? Dax Shephard, Kristen Bell, Brad Pitt, Ashton Kutcher, Jake Gyllenhaal. Supposedly, they are not frequent bathers or shower-takers. There was a big stink (pun intended) about this a few weeks ago when Ashton Kutcher and his wife, Mila Kunis were on a podcast with Dax Shepherd discussing personal hygiene habits. Ashton Kutcher is quoted as saying, “Now, here’s the thing: if you can see the dirt on them, clean them. Otherwise, there’s no point.” He’s referring to their children, but I believe that same principle applies to him and his wife as well.
There are people who choose not to bathe or clean themselves on a regular basis. There are people like me who are borderline germaphobes and frequently bathe. And then there are those who don’t bathe regularly, but, instead, douse themselves in cologne or perfume so that it somewhat masks the body odor that results from not being clean. Likewise, there are people who live their lives in a sinful manner, not recognizing their need for regular cleansing of forgiveness and repentance. There are those who daily, hourly see their need for a Savior and ask forgiveness of their sins. And then there are those who splash on good works and the outward appearance of being a Godfearing Christian to cover up the sinfulness that lives just under the surface.
After Paul introduces himself and offers encouragement and thankfulness for the Romans in the first seventeen verses, he gets down to business and he addresses the cleanliness and righteousness of his readers.
Romans 1:18 “God shows his anger from heaven against all the evil and wrong things that people do. Their evil lives hide the truth they have. 19 This makes God angry because they have been shown (emphasis mine) what he is like. Yes, God has made it clear to them.“
20 “There are things about God that people cannot see—his eternal power and all that makes him God. But since the beginning of the world, those things have been easy for people to understand. They are made clear in what God has made. So people have no excuse for the evil they do.”
We ended last week’s discussion on what Paul’s primary theme was in his letter to the Romans. Two words: Be right. Paul fervently wants to share God’s Good News with all people in order for them to “be right”. But in order for people to really understand and grasp the goodness of the news, they first have to really understand and grasp their need for it. In other words, they need to see their own dirt!
If you’ve ever been on a cruise, there’s a mandatory safety meeting on the first day at which you’re given instructions on the life jackets and rescue boats that are for use in case of an emergency. I’ve only been on one cruise, but I was surprised at how little attention people were paying to the instructions. As for me, I was taking notes. If a situation came up, I wanted to be prepared. But most people who are on a cruise will spend their time enjoying the entertainment, playing shuffleboard, eating at the buffet, relaxing by the pool, and will be not the least bit concerned with being rescued. They’re enjoying themselves. Living their life. It’s only when that ship starts sinking and they’re frantically looking for a life jacket, clinging to whatever floats, picturing the sharks that must be circling underneath do they start to panic and pray for someone to come along and save them. That’s when they realize they should have been paying closer attention in the safety meeting.
In a sense, that’s what Paul is doing here. He’s alerting them to the dangers those whirlpools and tsunamis of sin in which we find ourselves. Paul is letting them know that no one (neither Jew nor Gentile) is immune to unrighteous living. He’s also reminding them that the bottom line is this: WE KNOW BETTER.
Romans 1:21 “People knew God, but they did not honor him as God, and they did not thank him. Their ideas were all useless. There was not one good thought left in their foolish minds. 22 They said they were wise, but they became fools. 23 Instead of honoring the divine greatness of God, who lives forever, they traded it for the worship of idols—things made to look like humans, who get sick and die, or like birds, animals, and snakes.
In these verses, Paul is giving a list of infractions. People knew God but they didn’t honor Him as God. They didn’t thank Him. They tried to do things on their own and created their own idols who are nothing like God.
Warren Wiersbe puts this in perspective for us. “Human history began with people knowing God. Human history is not the story of a beast that worshipped idols, and then evolved into a person worshipping one God. Human history is just the opposite. People began knowing God but turned from the truth and rejected God. God revealed Himself to humankind through creation, the things that He made. From the world around them, humans knew that there was a God who had the wisdom to plan and the power to create.” [i]
When we consider Adam and Eve and the relationship they had with God before sin slithered its way in, isn’t it horribly amazing how far we’ve strayed from that? We are created with a void that only God can fill and yet we try desperately to fill it with all sorts of things. I have a few Christmas decorations that came in boxes that have the formed Styrofoam inside. The Styrofoam is molded around the object (Santa, Nativity scene, etc.) so that the object is snug inside the cavity. If I don’t put it in the right way, it doesn’t fit. Now, I could put something smaller in there and it would fit, but it’s not going to fill it up nor will it have the same protection because it’s shape is different. The object isn’t conformed to the Styrofoam. That Styrofoam is made so that only one thing will fit in that space. We’re made that same way. We are made in God’s image with a cavity that is designed to house God. We can and we do fill it up with all sorts of other things. Relationships, emotions, hobbies, distractions, habits, addictions, the list goes on and on, but none of those things, no matter how hard we try will perfectly fill that void. Strangely enough, some even try to fit church membership, church attendance, Bible study, prayer chains and gospel music into that void and neglect to include God with it all. There’s no substitute for God. Anything that takes up the space within us that God created for Him is an idol. And no idol will ever completely and wholly satisfy us like God.
The scary thing is that God only puts up with this behavior for so long. Romans 1:24 “People wanted only to do evil. So God left them and let them go their sinful way. And so they became completely immoral and used their bodies in shameful ways with each other. 25 They traded the truth of God for a lie. They bowed down and worshiped the things God made instead of worshiping the God who made those things. He is the one who should be praised forever. Amen.”
26 “Because people did those things, God left them and let them do the shameful things they wanted to do. Women stopped having natural sex with men and started having sex with other women. 27 In the same way, men stopped having natural sex with women and began wanting each other all the time. Men did shameful things with other men, and in their bodies they received the punishment for those wrongs.”
Did you catch that? Twice within those 3 verses, it states “God left them and let them”. Picking back up in verse 28, it states, “People did not think it was important to have a true knowledge of God. So God left them (third time that phrase is used) and allowed them to have their own worthless thinking. And so they do what they should not do. 29 They are filled with every kind of sin, evil, greed, and hatred. They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, lying, and thinking the worst things about each other. They gossip 30 and say evil things about each other. They hate God. They are rude, proud, and brag about themselves. They invent ways of doing evil. They don’t obey their parents, 31 they are foolish, they don’t keep their promises, and they show no kindness or mercy to others. 32 They know God’s law says that anyone who lives like that should die. But they not only continue to do these things themselves, but they also encourage others who do them.”
If I had handed you a checklist of those things before the scripture was read and asked you to check off how many of those you had been guilty of, would there be any ink left in your pen? Before you get all self-righteous and think to yourself, “I only checked off two so I think I’m in pretty good standing as compared to the person sitting to my left”, let me read the next verse. Romans 2:1. “So do you think that you can judge those other people? You are wrong. You too are guilty of sin. You judge them, but you do the same things they do. So when you judge them, you are really condemning yourself.”
Keep in mind that Paul is writing this letter to both Jews and Gentiles. There would be a pre-existing division among them so the field would be ripe for them to sit in judgment of one another. Paul though, is warning them to not be so hasty!
A great demonstration of this is the exchange between Nathan the prophet and David. If you recall, God sends Nathan to David and tells a story of two men, one rich and one poor. The rich man had many sheep and cattle, but the poor man had but one sheep whom he treated as a daughter. When the rich man had someone come to visit, he didn’t sacrifice one of his own sheep, but instead, took the life of the poor man’s one sheep in order to feed his guest. King David is appalled at this and responds, “As the Lord lives, the man who did this should die! He must pay four times the price of the lamb because he did this terrible thing and because he had no mercy.” 2 Samuel 12:5-6
David is mighty quick to make judgment on the rich man’s transgression. But then the hammer falls.
“Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are that rich man!’” 2 Samuel 12:7 In the words of Scooby Doo, “Ruh Roh!”
We don’t like to think of ourselves as sinners, do we? It’s uncomfortable. It’s embarrassing. So what we do is compare ourselves to others to make ourselves feel better. We justify our actions. We make peace with ourselves by reasoning out why we did what we did. What we’re really doing is compromising. We’re taking God’s Word and molding it to what fits us more comfortably.
Think about it this way. When you get a new pair of shoes, they are perfect and without blemish. The soles, the heels are without flaws. But new shoes are oftentimes not the most comfortable. They can rub blisters and irritate portions of your feet. I just bet that all of us have worn a new pair for a few hours just to “break them in” so that the perfectly made shoe stretches and reshapes itself to fit our foot so that it’s more comfortable. If for some reason, the shoes don’t eventually mold themselves like we desire, they either get thrown into the back of the closet or thrown away. Do we not do the same thing with God’s Word? We try it out, little bits and pieces at a time. But only until it becomes uncomfortable. So we’ll search for one verse or even a portion of a verse that fits exactly what we want it to say to make it more pleasing to us. If for some reason we can’t get rid of the discomfort in reading His Word, we put it away.
Many of us have been walking this Christian walk for so many years that we’ve created this mighty comfortable pair of loafers that are far stretched out from how they were created. We’ve slowly compromised the standards, the morals that, as God’s people, we should have. We’ve become the proverbial frog in the pot of water who doesn’t realize the temperature is gradually reaching that boiling point.
Casting Crowns has a song entitled Slow Fade. The lyrics describe this slippery slope in which we find ourselves.
“It’s a slow fade, when you give yourself away. It’s a slow fade when black and white are turned to gray, and thoughts invade, choices are made, a price will be paid, when you give yourself away. People never crumble in a day. It’s a slow fade.”[ii]
Can you identify with that? If you’re not ready to do so on a personal level, think about our world. When we set God’s Word next to what’s acceptable nowadays, can you see the gray area that we’ve created?
Romans 2:4 “God has been kind to you. He has been very patient, waiting for you to change. But you think nothing of his kindness. Maybe you don’t understand that God is kind to you so that you will decide to change your lives. 5 But you are so stubborn! You refuse to change. So you are making your own punishment greater and greater. You will be punished on the day when God will show his anger. On that day everyone will see how right God is to judge people. 6 He will reward or punish everyone for what they have done.”
Although this hits us right between the eyes if we’re being honest, stop for just a moment and consider what was going through the minds of those Romans reading the letter. This letter that starts off all sweet and encouraging is now ripping the bandages off the open wounds created by sin and pouring alcohol on them. Paul sounds so harsh. He tells them they are being so stubborn. He warns them that their behavior is making their punishment greater and that they will come to realize that God has a right to judge them. This seems like it’s a severe tactic to win them over, doesn’t it? His approach is much like the “Scared Straight” programs in which juvenile delinquents are thrown in with seasoned criminals in order for them to be scared to the point that they’ll straighten their lives out and as a result, avoid a life of crime. Paul is certainly not sugarcoating the truth here.
And before the mixed group of Jews and Gentiles start raising their eyebrows and pointing fingers at one another, Paul lets them know. Not one of you is better than the others. Romans 2:11 “God judges everyone the same. It doesn’t matter who they are.” This statement might have been quite shocking to both groups. The Jews, after all, were known to be God’s chosen people. Since the days of Abraham, there had been a covenant made between them and God that had lasted for many years and they had been separated from others. They were distinguished and selected. But now this bond with God that they had taken for granted for so many years was available to non-Jews. That feeling of superiority when it came to being chosen by God had been diluted by the blood of Jesus because now that bond could exist with anyone who called Him Lord. Jew or not. And now Paul is telling them they will be judged just like the Gentiles. I’m sure the Jews were thinking they should be getting extra credit just for being Jewish, right?
The problem was the Jews knew the law and had known what was expected of them so their accountability to God was higher than the Gentiles. Much like us, we know better. We know what is right and what is wrong but we still make frequent compromises that leads to sin.
Romans 2:13 “Hearing the law does not make people right with God. They will be right before him only if they always do what the law says. 14 Those who are not Jews don’t have the law. But when they naturally do what the law commands without even knowing the law, then they are their own law. This is true even though they don’t have the written law. 15 They show that in their hearts they know what is right and wrong, the same as the law commands, and their consciences agree. Sometimes their thoughts tell them that they have done wrong, and this makes them guilty. And sometimes their thoughts tell them that they have done right, and this makes them not guilty.16 All this will happen on the day when God will judge people’s secret thoughts through Jesus Christ. This is part of the Good News that I tell everyone.”
How does it make you feel to know that God will judge your secret thoughts? Unfortunately, for most of us, that doesn’t necessarily make it “good news”, does it? This is where the dousing of perfume comes in handy, right? We think that our outward good works and sanitized words will cover up the stench of our filthy secret thoughts. But Paul makes mention of the conscience. It’s believed that most everyone is born with a healthy conscience. Most people are born with the ability to know right from wrong. However, freewill allows us to make a choice. Our thoughts will either accuse us or excuse us. It really depends on how alert we allow our conscience to be.
Paul states in 1 Timothy 4:1 “The Spirit clearly says that in the last times some will turn away from what we believe. They will obey spirits that tell lies. And they will follow the teachings of demons. 2 Those teachings come through people who tell lies and trick others. These evil people cannot see what is right and what is wrong. It is like their conscience has been destroyed with a hot iron.”
If you’re familiar with the Disney story of Pinocchio, you know that the little wooden puppet liked to tell lies. He was befriended by Jiminy Cricket who served as his conscience. In the words of this adorable little insect named Jiminy, “What’s a conscience! I’ll tell ya! A conscience is that still small voice that people won’t listen to. That’s just the trouble with the world today.”
Isn’t that the truth? We’ve hushed our consciences so much because it’s like those new shoes. Our conscience makes us uncomfortable. Instead of using that God-given ability to know right from wrong as our moral compass, we choose to make excuses. And by doing this over and over again, as a result, we lose our moral authority with others.
Romans 2: 17 “What about you? You say you are a Jew. You trust in the law and proudly claim to be close to God. 18 You know what God wants you to do. And you know what is important, because you have learned the law. 19 You think you are a guide for people who don’t know the right way, a light for those who are in the dark. 20 You think you can show foolish people what is right. And you think you are a teacher for those who are just beginning to learn. You have the law, and so you think you know everything and have all truth. 21 You teach others, so why don’t you teach yourself?”
23 “You are so proud that you have God’s law, but you bring shame to God by breaking his law. 24 As the Scriptures say, “People in other nations insult God because of you.”[a]
Then Paul sheds light on one of the most controversial differences between Jews and Gentiles. Circumcision.
25 “If you follow the law, then your circumcision has meaning. But if you break the law, then it is as if you were never circumcised. 26 Those who are not Jews are not circumcised. But if they do what the law says, it is as if they were circumcised. 27 You have the written law and circumcision, but you break the law. So those who are not circumcised in their bodies, but still obey the law, will show that you are guilty.28 You are not a true Jew if you are only a Jew in your physical body. True circumcision is not only on the outside of the body. 29 A true Jew is one who is a Jew inside. True circumcision is done in the heart. It is done by the Spirit, not by the written law. And anyone who is circumcised in the heart by the Spirit gets praise from God, not from people.”
Circumcision was an outward sign of the covenant with God; however only males were designated to be circumcised. But then Jesus sacrificed Himself and the Holy Spirit came down and the body part that was needed (our hearts) was something that everyone had. That covenant from God that at one time was ordained for men and only for certain men was now available to everyone who had a beating heart.
And I imagine that the Jews reading this were taken aback by Paul’s statement that true circumcision is done by the Spirit and not by the law. That Spirit is what navigates us through our choices. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past, how muddy our thoughts are, or how much perfume we’ve slapped on to cover the dirtiness we have within. God’s always ready to welcome us back. He may have left them and let them do their own thing, but God always keeps the porch light on for us prodigal children.
2 Peter 3:9 – “The Lord is not slow in doing what he promised—the way some people understand slowness. But God is being patient with you. He does not want anyone to be lost. He wants everyone to change his heart and life.”
Did God uncover a smudge of dirt for you today?
“Maybe it’s time for some new shoes.”
[i] Be Right by Warren W. Wiersbe
[ii] Slow Fade by Casting Crowns