Paul here begins a section of his letter that runs from 1:18 to 3:20. His purpose is to show how all humans are sinners and in need of God’s salvation. He is like an artist who paints a dark background so that the main characters in the painting will shine brighter than otherwise to those who look at it. We in a sense are the viewers who can watch him put together his masterpiece about the salvation of God. And we are led to do so by first considering the problem of sin.
At that time, from the point of view of those who accepted the Old Testament, humanity was divided into two groups – Jews and Gentiles. This distinction would have been part of the fledgling church’s worldview as well because they had accepted that their Saviour was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. They also knew that God had given particular blessings to the Jewish race in the past. Indeed, the church at that time and for a while afterwards had difficulties in integrating Jews and Gentiles into its activities. So as Paul shapes his letter he bears in mind the reality of this division of humanity.
In explaining the spiritual situation of people Paul begins with the Gentiles and considers their relationship to God in 1:18-32. Obviously he is focussing on life in the first century but we will see as we think about his words that there are clear parallels with today. Perhaps those who lived during the period when Christianity shaped our national life wondered how Paul’s description applied to them, although if they had known their own hearts they would not have wondered for long. Our society has changed and it is a lot easier for us to see how history repeats itself as far as human behaviour is concerned.
Paul begins with a categorical affirmation about what is happening throughout the world: ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.’
We should note the verb ‘is’. It tells us when God reveals his wrath. Normally we think of divine wrath as being revealed at the end of time at the judgement seat. God also reveals his wrath through the institution of human government (Rom. 13:4). Yet we are reminded here that God also responds with wrath to what people are doing in their lives if what they are doing is against his standards. The wrath of God is his settled opposition and antagonism towards those who offend him. Paul reminded the Ephesian Christians that they were children of wrath before their conversions took place (Eph. 2:3).
Then there is the word ‘all’ and it covers everything that humans are guilty of as far as God is concerned. It may be that ‘ungodliness’ describes their wrong responses to God and ‘unrighteousness’ describes their wrong behaviour towards humans, although I suspect they merely mean the same thing. If there is a distinction, ungodliness may describe their attitude and unrighteousness their behaviour. This means, of course, that we cannot grade our behaviour and assume that some of it, although defective, is acceptable by God.
The third little word is ‘by’ and Paul uses it to explain how humans suppress the truth. The suppression is not only an internal thought process by which some think that another way is preferable. In addition, the truth is suppressed by their behaviour, by what they do as well as by what they think.
The fourth small word is ‘the’ at the close of the statement where Paul mentions ‘the truth’. He will proceed to say what the truth is, but the definite article stresses that as far as the Gentiles are concerned there is only one truth, however much it might contain about God and his ways. We will think about that truth tomorrow, but meanwhile we can reflect on what Paul says about God’s wrath.