(These are my notes for my Wednesday night Bible Study--we looked at Chapter 1 last week, this week, Chapter 2...)
After his introductory comments, Paul launches upon an extended argument that will take up most of his letter. The progression of his argument is something like a standard Evangelistic sermon: humanity is lost; only God can save us; God has saved us by coming as Christ and dying for us; we must place faith in Christ and change our lives.
Let’s skip down to where Paul begins this argument—around verse 16 of the first chapter. Notice he refers to salvation in Christ, “for the Jew first, and then Greek.” Then he proceeds to speak about Gentiles; chapter one talks about the sin of idolatry and the immorality that accompanies it.
One of the questions one might ask is why make this link?
Well, two thoughts come to mind.
First: a lot of pagan worship in Paul’s time included immoral behavior: temple prostitution, for example, as well as the bawdy plays that told the story of the gods and goddesses, such as St. Augustine described in City of God. And the thing is, the stories of the deities of Rome and Greece included a lot of immorality: greed, lust, ambition, treachery, murder, deceit, rape, sexual perversion—you name it, you’ll find it in the stories of the pagan deities.
Because Biblical religion definitely ties moral conduct to religion—such that the prophets argued that without just and moral conduct, any religious observance is worthless, even offensive to God—we are surprised to discover pagan religion was not necessarily about morality!
Pagan religion was often about politics—i.e., you paid tribute to the god or goddess of a particular city or nation, or to the emperor, as a sign of loyalty. Pagan religion was also about appeasing the gods—paying your dues so they left you alone or so that fate didn’t fall too heavily upon you. Notice: many people still think of their religious practice that way; if something bad happens, they think it’s because God is mad at them.
There were also “mysteries” in pagan religion, which might bring you enlightenment or even some sort of union with the divine—but many such “mystery” religions came from the East, and were distrusted by the Romans and Greeks of the West. The thing is, moral behavior was not necessarily a requirement or component of all pagan religions—instead, it was part of philosophy: i.e., the Stoics.
The second thing is that turning from God to worship created things is a turning from light to darkness—so it makes sense to say that idolatry will lead to other immorality. This is the point Paul is explicitly making, although he cannot have missed what we just described.
One of the points we should note in passing; not to hammer the point but to respond to certain contemporary claims: there is no reasonable way to read Paul’s words as allowing for homosexual conduct as moral or an alternative to heterosexual congress. There have been active efforts to soften this aspect of Christian morality; and many fancy arguments are spun to show that Paul didn’t really mean what he seems to mean. But such arguments are extremely tendentious—that is to say, they badly twist the text in service of an agenda. Paul’s words are not obscure, they are clear in condemning homosexual activity.
Now, let’s also say that Paul doesn’t go on and on about it; it is one of many sins he condemns, and he makes clear that whether one is engaged in sexual perversion, or idolatry, or adultery, or self-righteous condemnation of others, or many other garden-variety sins we all plead guilty to, without Christ one faces the “wrath of God.” So while we object to distortions of Scripture in service of validating homosexual behavior, we must also object to overemphasizing this particular sin.
Next (i.e., in chapter 2), Paul now turns to the Jewish contingent he is addressing. In short, he says, “so you think you’re better than those filthy Gentiles? Not so!” The climax of this argument is the same that the Old Testament prophets made: the circumcision that really counts is inward, not outward. Such a person is, in Paul’s words, the “true Jew.”
We might recall that in studying the Gospel of Matthew, we saw that our Lord was neither embracing a restrictive Jewish identity—he wasn’t bashing Gentiles—nor was he hostile to Judaism; he was calling for a renewed Israel. He appealed to his fellow Jews to join him, to recognize him as the Messiah; he is both a son of Israel and also Israel’s Maker; and he prepares the Apostles to be the 12 patriarchs of the Renewed Israel.
Here we see Paul pursuing a similar line of thought—and we might keep this in mind for later parts of this Letter, where Paul will talk about Abraham, and works of the Law, and righteousness, and the Vine of Israel.
We might wonder—in all of Paul’s travels and reflection, how much he must have pondered this. How could have not have? A Pharisee of Pharisees, he calls himself; a zealous defender of Pharisaic Judaism against the Christians, until he is pulled short by Christ himself on the Damascus Road. He had so much to think about as he went on to Damascus—blinded by the light—and then awaiting the arrival of Ananias to explain what happened, and baptize him. How could he not have continued to turn this over in his mind, especially when he took the Gospel to his fellow Jews, and many rejected his message?