There has been a lot written about Paul’s words to the church in Rome as he summarizes the history of the human race. While some thinkers see this scripture as pertaining solely to Gentile culture, others see it more broadly as the way all cultures have failed to recognize God, the creator of the world and the judge of all unrighteousness, and that is the position I find myself prone to take. The reason for a more broad approach is because I think a reader of the Old Testament can easily see that idolatry and dehumanization was just as prevalent in Israel as it was in the surrounding “pagan” kingdoms. In fact, Old Testament scholars point out that at any given time in the history of Israel, monotheistic loyalty to Yahweh was never fully established, and the chasing after other gods was a reality present throughout the history of the wilderness wanderings, the time of the Judges, and the monarchy…not to mention a cited reason for the fall of Israel and then Judah, Northern and Southern kingdoms, once divided.
So, Paul addresses the scene that has played out amongst all nations; and particularly, the downward spiral from the intended and godly purpose of humanity to what we have made of ourselves. Of particular interest to us today is the notion of natural and unnatural relationships cited in this text which leads us to a discussion of human sexuality, sexual freedom, and homosexuality. Here is the text of Romans from the NLT:
Romans 1:24 So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. 25 They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. 26 That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. 27 And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.
28 Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. 29 Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. 30 They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. 31 They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. 32 They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.
Needless to say, this text is extremely controversial and has been used to condemn homosexuals, to contrast the type of homosexuality practiced today from ancient practices, and to particularly condemn those who switch back and forth from heterosexual practices to homosexual practices. Yet, what we need to do when studying a text like this is to remember that Paul was addressing the particular situation in Rome, and after extracting the principles and lessons that he wanted to communicate there, we can properly move from the ancient world into ours in an effort to understand what this text means in our contemporary world.
An aspect of this text I want to point out is that Paul is not speaking of individual choices nor individual behaviors nor individual morality. Paul is speaking about a culture of idolatry in humanity at large. This is to say that Paul is not interested in case study or a small scale sample, he has seized on the human condition of worshipping the wrong things and being deceived to think that that worship of lesser beings would bring about the same ends as the worship of God.
For Paul, this worship of lesser things has resulted in a damaged relationship to God, each other, and the creation as a whole. Particularly, Paul cites the sexual practices that were currently happening in Roman pagan culture as a direct result of inaccurate worship. Humanity has “traded the truth of God for a lie” and in so doing they have treated each other’s bodies as objects to be explored and exploited. This argument is “that the existence of homosexual practice in a culture is a sign that that culture as a whole has been worshipping idols and that its God-given male-and-female order is being fractured as a result.” (NT Wright, Romans, New Interpreter’s Bible, p.435)
While it is evident that Paul regards homosexual practice as a dangerous distortion of God’s intentions for sex and sexuality, and while we might agree or disagree with Paul given what we have studied about human sexuality and psychology; what we cannot do is simply sidestep this passage when it comes to Christian ethics and what it says about culture and accepted practices of sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual to be inclusive, in any given culture. However, if we are going to take the citation of homosexuality seriously in the passage above, then we must also head the warning against innate moral superiority that is coming in the next section of scripture starting in Romans 2. That is to say, while some participate in dehumanizing behaviors through “shameful desires of the heart,” others stand aloof to these practices as if they are outside the widespread problem of sin…as if only “those” people sin and “we” do not. Paul finds this to be complete nonsense and a type of unrighteousness that is just as damaging to the human condition. (So, Paul would categorize any attempt to condemn and hurt a homosexual for being such alongside the very practice of homosexuality—“falling short of God’s glory”)
A phrase that gets special attention is at the end of verse 27, “They suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.” While some commentators will point to modern sexually transmitted diseases or even make mention of AIDS in this context, I don’t think Paul had any specific disease in mind. Paul is making reference to the fact that the end of sin is DEATH. I think that becomes clear in the following paragraph and even later in Romans where Paul would assert that sin pays you in death…(“the wages of sin is death” - Romans 6:23). I think it is also telling that Paul, along with other Jewish thinkers would see DEATH as a separation and isolation from God, from each other, and from creation (or the natural world) and less of an event at the end of a life. So, in the second paragraph of our text above, we see God hand them over yet again, showing a growing separation between God and humanity. We see examples of relationships being torn apart in the actions associated with… sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip…and even the “disobeying of parents.” Again, we see this as a result of idolatry, moving to dehumanizing behaviors that then play out in our relationships… As it pertains to the natural world and creation, Paul would argue that men were made to naturally fit with women and that women were designed by God to naturally fit with men. And therefore, what we have is, “DEATH” and the process of dying that started when humanity decided to not worship God or even give him thanks, and they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused…
I want to end with some questions for us to ponder:
Today’s reading has me thinking about 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 in which Paul expresses concern about what the Corinthians have come to believe and practice. It seems that the gift of grace that God provided has been used to perpetuate a notion of liberty that was not intended in the gift. What I mean to say is that Paul is concerned that ideas about the body, sexual relationships, and our relationship with Christ must be addressed among the Christians at Corinth.
They seem to love maxims, short sayings to live by, or proverbial statements. Paul references a few in our passage:
“I am allowed to do anything!” or “Everything is permissible for me!”
“Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food!”
These slogans or maxims were referenced by Paul, we assume, because the people knew them and lived by them. Yet, Paul qualifies these sayings because, as you probably already know, a proverb or maxim is helpful in certain contexts and situations, but are not entirely universally true. And so Paul qualifies “I am allowed to do anything,” with “but not everything is good for you,” and “I must not become a slave to anything.” Paul goes on to qualify the maxim, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food,” with a more chilling response, “someday God will do away with both of them.”
Yet, this moves Paul to what seems to be the real point. Apparently some of Corinthians christians live by a maxim that says, “Our bodies are made to have sex, and so having sex is what our bodies must do!” And there were many opportunities for sexual activities in that city. If you would like to understand more about the city of Corinth and sexual practices, there has been much study done about that. But for this moment, Paul is not concerned with the cultural practices surrounding the Christian church, but Paul asserts the reality that they have entered into a relationship with Jesus. This relationship is not haphazard nor is it flippant…it is a covenant relationship that looks a lot like marriage (see Hosea 1-3; Ezekiel 16). Here is the entire passage from the New Living Translation:
12 You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything. 13 You say, “Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food.” (This is true, though someday God will do away with both of them.) But you can’t say that our bodies were made for sexual immorality. They were made for the Lord, and the Lord cares about our bodies. 14 And God will raise us from the dead by his power, just as he raised our Lord from the dead.
15 Don’t you realize that your bodies are actually parts of Christ? Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never! 16 And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, “The two are united into one.” 17 But the person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him.
18 Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. 19 Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, 20 for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.
I like this contemporary reflection on the passage: “In our individualistic society and culture, Paul’s claim that ‘you are not your own’ will seem decidedly alien. Are we not in charge of our own lives? Can we not do as we see fit? Our own self-control is a fiction that we struggle to maintain. For Paul and indeed for everyone in his time, nobody was without a master, a lord to whom they were in some measure responsible…Some modern people, giving lip service to equality, find a horizontal image preferable; but in reality modern culture is stratified—and that not just economically—much more severely than we sometimes may want to acknowledge.” (J.P. Sampley, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X, 866-67)
I think modern Christians must wrestle with the same notion that our ancient brothers and sisters did…We are not as independent and strong as we think we are, and perhaps sex and sexual experiences have us torn between faithfulness to Jesus and thinking that we are just participating in what our bodies were made to do. Paul’s words still ring true, “Glory God in your body!” Freedom is not without a lord (aka “is not free”), but the Lord offers freedom in that you, me, the self, our bodies, can be rescued from shame to the splendor and magnificence of that which God created! For Christians: your body is a temple, a sacred space where God lives.
I was reading in Acts 7 this morning where Stephen is preaching to a very hostile crowd. If you know the story in Acts, Stephen gets stoned to death by those listening to his words, and while being stoned that Bible records that he looked up to heaven to see, “the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” The crowd of the high priest and synagogue attendees was so angry at Stephen that the text says they “ground their teeth” at him and were “enraged.” So, what did Stephen say? Well, there were several aspects of the old system of religion that Stephen criticized, but I think the nail in Stephen’s coffin happened when he spoke of the Temple in Jerusalem. He said this:
46 “David found favor with God and asked for the privilege of building a permanent Temple for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who actually built it. 48 However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. As the prophet says,
49 ‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?’
asks the Lord.
‘Could you build me such a resting place?
50 Didn’t my hands make both heaven and earth?’”
The Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands… God lives in the heaven and the earth, God created his throne and God crafted his dwelling place. God lives with us, not separated from some stone barrier. …and this didn’t go over all that well, but we should understand why. In fact, that mound that still exists in Jerusalem sure does continue to get a lot of attention from religious people. Stephen tells them that they resist the Holy Spirit…that is God’s indwelling, God’s presence among his people. They resist it because they have put their faith, trust, and allegiance in the Temple.
God is bigger than that temple, and maybe we might say that God is bigger than our temples. I know we don’t have stone structures that contain God, but we all have boxes that contain God. I know how God thinks and I know how God acts. I know given a particular situation God would do this…and I know that if we don’t fully do what God wants then God will respond in this way. But Jesus changes all of that, we are talking "law" and Jesus came to SAVE…which the law only condemns.
So, let’s check our “temples” today and not try to contain the Most High in boxes created by human hands (or minds). Lord God, show us your glory as high as the heavens and may we see your throne not as a temple, box, or doctrine, but as a Kingdom where you reign and a Kingdom we live today, now, and forevermore in your presence! Amen.
Reading and studying Revelation, especially during a heated presidential election and in the middle of an election year across our nation, has really been challenging to me. From a historical perspective, there is a clear movement away from the influences of culture as perpetuated by the governing authorities. Through the imagery of the “beast” who are empowered by the “Great Red Dragon” we should read and see an attitude toward all things Roman and thus be cognizant of the dangers that threaten the church through all oppressive ideas, structures, and actions.
Of course, the book of Revelation is also clear that churches should not at all participate in the oppression that Rome represents. In the opening chapters, Jesus is seen speaking to churches who have given into the pressures and have begun to put hope into economic securities, easily acceptable teachings regarding sexual practices, and syncretism of the Roman way of life and the Christian way of life. Revelation uses strong imagery of churches that are acting in such unfaithful ways when it calls them “lukewarm” and Jesus is seen as one standing outside and knocking at the door of the church. So, why such a strong contrast between the empire and the church?
Because people have died. One of the most blaring differences between the original recipients of Revelation and those I am teaching on Sunday mornings (including me) is the situation in which we read and study this communication from God. It is a difference of comfort; for the first recipients of the book there was very little acceptance and some marginalizing consequences for those who would choose to live for God because it was regarded as an assault against the throne and the government of Rome. This played out in the social, religious, and economic aspects of Roman culture. From a social perspective, Christians were at best seen as a threat to the peace and stability of Rome and thus shunned and marginalized. From a religious perspective, Christians did not worship the gods of Rome nor the emperor; and thus, were seen as the mysterious other group that are weird and propose a threat. From an economic perspective, this mistrust lead to many Christians not finding employment and losing business opportunities. In the end…this marginalization and oppression led to an attitude in which killing Christians could be seen as a noble act and a protective service for Rome.
Therefore, we have the pictures of God’s judgment like we have in Revelation 14. It is gruesome, but I understand that if God is going to save a people who is dying, suffering, hurting, losing, and crying to God for help; then part of that salvation is throwing down the oppressor and proving that this people, God’s people, have done nothing wrong in their allegiance to God.
I am afraid, however, that as we sit together in peace and prosperity, in our buildings designated for the worship of God through Jesus christ, in our pews or pillowed attachable seats, and read from our gold-tipped pages the word of God…that the action of God in coming to the aid of these Christians might be somewhat offensive to us. We have been persuaded to get along with everyone, to be quiet about our faith, and to figure out a way to blend culture and religion together in a peaceful compromise.
After all, we have heard it taught and preached and repeated and used by everyone and put on signs that God is LOVE. I agree that God is a loving and merciful God…but some situations call for a “consuming fire” type of God, a wrathful and angry God, a God that declares, “vengeance is mine, I will repay…” type of God. God loves the world..yes! And God loves his people, those who serve and worship Jesus Christ as Lord and King…yes! Now, I love my wife and I happen to love other women as well, like my good friends and family. What happens if someone I love started oppressing my wife whom I also love? What should my response be? Umm…I choose my wife! God chooses his church!
God has poured out his love into this world by providing his Son Jesus and by giving it the church, God’s people. That church is called the bride of Christ in the book of Revelation. It is the bride that the world has abused and hurt and disregarded…and God (along with Jesus) comes to the aid of the church. While I do believe God calls us to be peacemakers, to love our neighbors, and to live a quiet life from which others can learn…Let us also make no mistake that God’s judgment is real and it is awful. Those who want to hurt the church and lead people astray will be thrown down, and I just really hope that if you are a Christian that doesn’t offend you. If so, maybe, just maybe, we should think about just how comfortable our life is and if that comfort is an obstacle to being a faithful witness for God.
In Colossians, Paul seems to go out of his way to show that the BODY of Jesus Christ was some sort of utmost importance, and in so doing connects the body of Jesus to our bodies. In Colossians 1, Paul wrote:
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
He would follow that by asserting:
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,
Then Paul connects this notion of Christ’s body to those in the church when he wrote:
27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
So, just to understand this in a simplified way: 1) God was pleased to dwell in the body of Christ in which he worked peace between himself and the world, 2) This work was done by Jesus Christ’s physically death on the cross in which his body died, 3) and now it is Jesus Christ who is in our bodies proclaiming the glory (honor, majesty) of God.
This is interesting because Paul’s argument claims an incarnational ministry of God. In other words, God uses flesh and bone—not simply spirit and soul. But why this emphasis on the body and especially the embodiment of God?
Well, there were false teachers in Colossae who were proponents of “gnosticism.” Gnosticism was a complex religious philosophy which taught that salvation could only be achieved through secret knowledge, and those who taught these ideas were known as gnostics. While there are many varieties of gnosticism, there are also common ideas which we will see below:
The following may be regarded as the chief points in the Gnostic systems:
(1) A claim on the part of the teacher to a special knowledge of the truth; a tendency to regard knowledge as superior to faith and as the special possession of the more enlightened, for ordinary Christians did not possess this secret and higher doctrine;
(2) The essential separation of matter (body) and spirit, matter (body) being intrinsically evil and the source from which all evil has arisen;
(3) An attempt to solve the problems of creation and the origin of evil by postulating a demiurge, i.e., a creator or artificer of the world distinct from the deity, and emanations extending between God and the visible universe (the demiurge for the Gnostics being the God of the OT, an inferior being infinitely remote from the Supreme Being who can have nothing to do with anything material);
(4) A denial of the true humanity of Christ; a docetic Christology which considered the earthly life of Christ and especially His sufferings on the cross to be unreal;
(5) The denial of the personality of the Supreme God, and also the denial of the free will of mankind;
(6) The teaching, on the one hand, of asceticism (avoidance of all forms of indulgence) as the means of attaining spiritual communion with God, and, on the other hand, of an indifference that led directly to licentiousness (promiscuous life of sex);
(7) A syncretistic tendency that combined certain more or less misunderstood Christian doctrines and various elements from oriental, Jewish, Greek, and other sources;
(8) Ascription of the OT to the demiurge or inferior creator of the world.
(Adapted from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, pp. 486-487, vol. 2, “Gnosticism")
Therefore, if you read Colossians 1 and 2 in light of this information above, what a reader will find is a strong counterargument by Paul who asserts the importance of the body and the physical labor, the suffering and the growth in faith, the death of Jesus and his residing in the believers body.
The reason I bring this up is because we cannot pretend that some of these ideas are not present in our contemporary church. Some believers think they have some special knowledge that makes them a superior Christian doctrine when compared to others who are devalued in their pursuits of faith. Others tend to make a stark unbiblical disconnect between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament…how is that possible within the roots of the gnostics? And there are those that would take away all pleasure and, shall we say, “fun” out of the Christian life since our bodies are evil and it is our spirits that must prevail.
We are left to ponder a God who is prevalent in our human condition from the beginning of time until now. Who has taken upon himself bodily form and then sacrificed that body, the very life of his son Jesus Christ, to draw our relationship closer. Moreover, after the resurrection and ascension of Christ, the Bible clearly teaches that this same God then resides in those who have made Jesus their Savior and Lord. Often, this residence is called the Holy Spirit and sometimes Paul will refer to it as “Christ in you” showing that it is the work of Christ that generated the coming of the Spirit and it is Christ’s work that the Spirit continues in the church. Consequently, we should take great joy in the body of Christ, the church, and in our own bodies and the work we do because God made and takes great delight in our humanity!
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.