Paul opens this letter affirming his apostleship, as was his custom with letters to churches that were not so familiar with him. He reinforces that in verses 4-6 by stating that, through Jesus, he and the other apostles “received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…” The long introduction also affirms that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he was descended from David, fulfilling Old Testament prophecy (verse 4); and he declares the mission to the Gentiles (verse 13). He also expresses, at some length, his eagerness to go to Rome for fellowship and sharing the gospel with them.
Not much is known for certain about the church at Rome. But by virtue of it being in Rome, its fame would have been considerable and, like the other churches, it was composed of both Jews and Gentiles. The remainder of this chapter focuses on the need for righteousness on the part of the Gentiles, and Paul does not mince words in pointing out the history of unrighteousness on their part. But as the letter continues, it will become apparent that McGarvey’s assessment is largely correct. He writes:
“The Judaizing tendencies which had recently appeared in Corinth and Galatia were sure eventually to appear in other churches, perhaps ultimately in all, and the attitude assumed by a church already so influential and destined to increase in power was sure to carry great weight in deciding the controversy. Therefore, to set the church of Rome right as to the design and nature of the gospel was a work of supreme importance…”
Heading off such a crevasse in this church was of great concern, to be sure. McGarvey further expounds most aptly:
“The purpose of the letter is to set forth, as Baur rightly expresses it, ‘both the relation of Judaism and heathenism to each other, and the relation of both to Christianity;’ primarily, for the instruction of the Christians in Rome, and, secondarily, for the benefit of all the churches by the establishment of peace between their Jewish and Gentile elements, and, ultimately, for the enlightening of the kingdom of God in all ages.”
Though verses 18-24 are here specifically directed at those Gentiles, they contain some of the most profound (and certainly definitive) statements applicable to all people everywhere concerning God’s existence, and thus they provide the very basis of sound apologetics. The “wrath of God” in verse 18 represents his holiness, judgment, and yet loving response to the unrighteousness of mankind. When Paul says that all mankind knows God, he is not speaking of the concept of a god or of deity in general. Man knows the one true and living God because the evidence abounds in everything He created, yet he suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. His attributes, including His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived since the creation of the world, so that everyone is without excuse.
Man has always tended to be full of himself because of the material knowledge he acquires, only made possible by God; and “claiming to be wise, they became fools…” Man’s desire for sin and all that is an abomination to his Creator moves him to exchange the truth about God for a lie (verse 25) and worship the creature rather than the Creator even to this day. People who deny Him do so by conscious choice in a futile attempt to justify their own unrighteousness. The “shameful acts” Paul lists as driving this begins with unnatural relations of men and women with others of the same gender, and in verse 29 runs from gossips to murderers and “all manner of evil” in between – as God makes no distinction between what man considers “small” or large sins.
Any claim by someone who says they would believe if the evidence was there is hogwash. Blindness to the more than substantial evidence is entirely willful.
some images © V. Gilbert & Arlisle F. Beers
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