It is pretty standard evangelical fare to see Paul’s argument in Romans 1-3 as (roughly) what follows. Paul starts by talking about Gentiles and how corrupt and depraved they are. Any respectable Jew would then feel vindicated; at least I am not like those vile, troublesome Gentiles! But then in chapter two, Paul says that Israel is just as badly off, and in chapter three tells us that everybody stands equally condemned under the law. Which is, of course, why we need Jesus.
But is this really what Romans 1 (let alone Romans) is about?
I humbly suggest it is not.
Our starting point for understanding Romans 1 has to begin at the end of the chapter. Since our question revolves around the identity of the “men” and “they” which Paul uses throughout the chapter, we have to start with where Paul defines these terms.
though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Rom. 1:32)
That’s the ESV’s translation. The translation of my 1599 Geneva BIble says, “Which men, though they knew the Law of God, how that they which commit such things are worthy of death, yet not only do the same, but also favor them that do them.” The identity of “they” in the verse and in the chapter, depends upon who possesses the knowledge of the Law of God. The Geneve Bible, translated by the Reformers, sure seemed to think “they” were Jews. The Jews knew the Law, they were the keepers of the Law. Unbelievers could “know” the Law in some general sorts of ways (and we know that the Pharaoh of Moses’ day, and even Plato, knew something about it), it was in a special way known only to Israel. We already know that the NT is an Israel-centric collection of documents, so it only makes sense to examine Romans in this light.
We have for so long read Romans in the light of “natural theology” and “natural law” and claims of universal general knowledge of God, that we now completely miss the point when we come to the passage, reading it only in mind of our own talking points and hearing back from the text only the echo of our own voices.
So let us re-examine this passage in the light of Israel and see how this reshapes our reading.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
This is one of the most frequently abused passages of Scripture in Reformed circles, who, thanks to men like Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen can barely see anything but intellectual suppression and presuppositional blindness. And however correct those views, this is not the place from which to derive them.
The “wrath of God” here is something that was being revealed in Paul’s present, in the first century. Later he will tell us that this wrath is going to come in a “day of wrath” (2:3). We have already seen how the “day of wrath” is the day of judgment against Israel, not a final judgment at the end of time. This day of wrath is one that will appear in A.D. 70 against Israel as the covenant people. This is vital for us to see, because this coming wrath is what shapes this whole chapter.
God’s wrath is being revealed against who? Men. Who are men in Scripture? Any good Jew of the era would have been able to tell us that in Scripture, “men” and “man” are references to Israel, who is symbolically a man while the Gentiles are symbolically beasts and animals. Thus, the “men” who “suppress the truth” are the rulers of Israel and all who are allied with them against Jesus and against the fledgling Church. No Jew would have believed for a second that an unbelieving Gentile had the truth to begin with; it was only Israel that was given the special revelation of God to know the truth. This reading is reinforced when Paul says that what they know about God is plain, because God went out of His way to show it to them. He revealed something about Himself to them, and not through the creation, as we will see.
The next verses are where we run into trouble. Normally, this passage is used to claim something like, even unbelievers know something about God, because just living in this world is enough for God to reveal Himself to them. Of course, this is true, but this is not Paul’s point. His point is that Israel suppresses the special knowledge of God, and has to work really hard at it in order to do so. Israel is without excuse because even the very rocks and animals cry out to testify about Him.
The next verse tells us that they “became” futile in their thinking. Well, the Gentiles were already futile in their thinking, long before Paul wrote these words. No, this passage is talking about a group of people who have “become” futile in their thinking. This futility of their thinking leads to a few interesting places. They dishonor and do not thank or praise God, and their foolish hearts are darkened. Now, this passage has to do with the Incarnation; it has to do with Jesus. Paul tells us that God has always revealed Himself to Israel through created things, animals and rocks and trees and so forth, so they are without excuse when they fail to see God come in the flesh. “Although they knew God, they did not honor Him.” Who did they not honor? Israel. Who did they not give thanks to? Who revealed the invisible attributes of God in the flesh? The God-man Jesus. Whose hearts are darkened? Israel’s hearts were darkened (2 Cor. 3). Who claimed to have the wisdom of God but who became fools? Israel. Who exchanged the glory of immortal God in the flesh for images of the creation? Who always went after graven images? Israel.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Therefore, “because” they rejected Christ, God gave them up to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped the creature instead. All of this is exactly what we see Israel doing in the gospels and in Acts.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Paul here uses the metaphor of same sex activity to describe Israel’s desire to worship the creature instead of Jesus. Throughout the OT, the connection between marriage and worship was very close, and when Israel goes astray the prophets routinely describe this as a woman lusting after other men instead of Yahweh, her husband. Israel was God’s Bride, God’s wife. In Romans 1, Paul speaks of idolatry and in the next breath goes on to discuss same sex activity because the desire to worship the creature instead of the Creator is the desire to worship something the same, not something different. Israel is a creature, and wants to worship another creature, and Paul says that desire is like wanting to lay with a person of the same gender.
Paul then finishes his denunciation of ethnic Israel with one of his classic laundry lists.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
Because Israel refused to acknowledge Jesus as Lord of all, God-in-the-Flesh, God has given them up to their desires. Jesus denounces the Pharisees for precisely this list of sins throughout all four of the gospels, and as we read the NT, we find more and more that Israel has left the true path, filled with all of these things.
Romans 1, in short, is about Israel.