Creation’s Intimate Touch, Part 1: God’s Three Revelations

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Creation’s Intimate Touch, Part 1: God’s Three Revelations

At the General Conference Session of 2015 the world church will reconsider our Fundamental Belief number 6 dealing with the subject of Creation.[1] At first glance, this statement may seem little connected to our everyday life in the twenty-first century. Does it really matter whether it took God six literal days to create our world? Do we need to be quite particular about the chronology, the events of Creation, and the relationship to sin and death in our world? Are there any practical matters that this doctrine touches on?

In the summer and fall of 2014 I had two appointments seemingly unrelated, but actually deeply interconnected. In August I was invited to give a summary presentation of Creation in the New Testament at the Creation Conference sponsored by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.[2] I presented passages that illustrate how eight New Testament doctrines have intimate links to the biblical record of Creation in Genesis 1-2.[3] Then at the end of September into the beginning of October I was at 3ABN, an Adventist television ministry, taping a 26-part series on love, marriage, sex, and divorce.

The two appointments seem totally unrelated until you notice the Biblical texts involved and what they say. What I want to illustrate here is the very practical “touch” that Creation has on the questions of marriage and sex. We do not typically think these are related, but the New Testament is quite adamant on the matter. We will look at two passages to get the idea. They are Romans 1:16-32 and Matthew 19:3-9. Because of the depth of the topics in these passages and their interrelatedness, I will present their message in a series of three articles. In this article we will look at the argumentation of Romans 1; in the second article the way Romans 1 argues about Creation; and in the third article the message of Matthew 19 connecting marriage to Creation.

Romans 1: Three Revelations

Romans 1 presents Paul’s opening arguments concerning how God brings the world back to Himself. It may surprise us how the apostle begins his argumentation. He speaks of three revelations to the world. In Romans 1:16-17 he speaks of the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel message:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”[4]

This is the message of the gospel we love to hear about, God’s righteousness that brings salvation to us through faith. Paul says that the gospel message contains a revelation from God. That revelation is the saving righteousness of God that reaches out to heal humanity of the sin problem (cf. Rom 5:6-11).[5]

Wrath

But Paul does not stop there with the revelations. He goes on in verse 18:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”

It is important to notice the first word, “for.” It indicates some logical linkage between the revelation in verse 17 of the righteousness of God to save sinners and the revelation of His wrath against ungodliness in verse 18.[6] Paul juxtaposes these opposites so that we do not misunderstand salvation.

Salvation is not about a grandfatherly deity patting you on the head and affirming who you are and what you do, saying, “There, there, that’s all right, just know that I love you and everything will be fine.” Salvation is not an affirmation about us. Rather, it is a solution to a very real problem. Salvation indicates that before it arrived we were troubled, sick, lost.[7] The gospel is a revelation of God’s power and illustrates the vast distinction between Him and us. The righteousness of God is something we receive by faith, implying that without that faith experience we are not right, not on proper terms with God.[8]

In fact, the truth is even more stark. Our case as sinners is not simply a matter of us destroying ourselves. Our misdeeds impact more than ourselves and those around us. They reach up to heaven and are an affront to the holiness of God. We might think that sin in a little corner of the universe like our planet might be something that the God of the universe could overlook. Not so. Since He is omnipresent, every act of sin is done in His presence. Pure goodness does not mix with badness of any kind, hence the affront.

The wrath of God is deeply misunderstood in a postmodern society. The relativity that postmodernism teaches insists (if postmodernism can insist) that all morality is relative, all goods are tinted with greys, and hence it is fruitless to speak of a pure goodness and an unalloyed badness. In such a perspective wrath seems like an inappropriate intrusion.

But that is just the thing. Paul is not talking about human wrath or anger, or about how we feel about it all. He is talking about God’s wrath. An illustration may help. If we were to see a large man coming out of a grocery store dragging a whimpering 6-year-old with a black eye, shouting profanities at her as he dragged her to his car, suddenly emotions, feelings, determinations would rise in our hearts. If you were to see this and said nothing, but meekly walked into the store, I can assure you that you would feel quite guilty walking around that store, kicking yourself because you did not stand up to an abusive bully. We call the feeling that we should stand up to a bully “righteous indignation.” It is not something we feel guilty for, even if we have to intervene with strong words or actions. Indeed, we feel guilty if we do not intervene.

Just so, the wrath of God is His holy hatred of sin. It is that “righteous indignation” we feel, but drained of human dross and multiplied a million times. He does not hate sin because He is mean. He hates it because He is pure goodness. He cannot tolerate wickedness because of the terrible evil it brings to everyone it touches. Sin is abusing our world and everyone in it, destroying the fabric of the good world God created. His wrath against this outrage is not ugly, it is pure. It is not something to explain away. It is the moral justice of the moral Arbiter of the universe.

If we do not understand the wrath of God, the second revelation of which Paul speaks, we do not have the context we need to understand its opposite, the righteousness of God that solves the sin problem, the first revelation.

Creation

But Paul has yet another revelation he speaks of in verses 19-20:

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 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.”

To understand the cause of the wrath of God, and the gospel revelation that resolves it, we must understand the third revelation Paul speaks of. This revelation goes way back. It is primal—God’s power and deity expressed in nature. It is the revelation of Creation. Surprisingly, Paul indicates that to understand God’s wrath, and hence to understand the gospel, you have to understand Creation.[9] Paul indicates that this revelation is as plain as day and convicts every heart, showing that God is there and that He is the Almighty Creator. The apostle concludes that mankind is “without excuse” before God (Rom 1:20).

This conclusion of Paul is rejected by some today because they insist that nature does not reveal the Creator. They claim that Nature (with a capital N) guides itself and that life arose from nonliving substances through natural laws that inevitably led to the ordered world filled with living things that surround us. In fact, these proponents of Nature without a mind insist that we ourselves are the end product of a great evolutionary process.

If you have ever wondered if this idea of order arising from chaos is just a little odd, you would not be alone. But the whole issue is such an important question that we will devote the second article in this series to that subject. For now, we will just assume that Paul is right in what he says so we can follow the rest of his argument.[10]

Paul continues in verses 21-23,

“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. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”

Paul starts with the idea that people knew God, that they had at least a minimum of revelation of who He is based on what is seen in nature. Given this rudimentary knowledge of God, the resulting responsibility toward God would be to honor Him as Creator and thank Him for His gifts.

But Paul insists that people do not do this. Instead they replace the living God with idols. For the apostle the primal or root sin of humanity is the rejection of the primal revelation that God is the Creator. The void of the Creator above is filled with idols made below. Lest we get the idea that idols are a thing of the primitive past, in actuality an idol is anything that takes the place of God. It can be people, ideas, money, position, pleasure, power, or the biggest idol of all—yourself! These idols are all through the land today.

Paul indicates that this idolatry leads to a downward spiral. Thinking turns to futility. The Greek word behind this is related to ideas like “foolish,” “vain,” “empty.” It is the opposite of wisdom and prudence. Paul insists that the heart turns dark, the mind foolish, as illustrated by replacing the immortal God with images of people, animals, and creeping things (note the downward direction, from humans to animals to lower forms of life).

God’s Handing Over

It is at this point that Paul explains how the wrath of God is expressed in our world. He presents three instances of action by God, using the term “hand over.”[11] In each case, the action of God follows a sinful action by people. People exchanged the truth about God for idols, so God handed them over to impure lusts (vv. 23-24). People exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped the creature, so God handed them over to another exchange: homosexual practice instead of heterosexual (vv. 25-27—more about this below). People did not think it reputable to have God in mind, so He handed them over to a disreputable mindset, which led to all kinds of terrible behaviors (vv. 28-32).

Now, you might look at these verses and think, “Wow! I thought the Bible teaches ‘God is love.’ How can a loving God do these things to people?” Two points help explain. First, God’s wrath of handing people over is always a reaction to something they have done. They take action first in sin. His response is to hand them over. Second, the phraseology Paul uses illustrates a very common Biblical sense of justice. Jesus put it this way: “With the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt 7:2).

In the first case people do not praise and thank the Creator (they dishonor Him), so He hands them over to dishonorable passions. In the second case they exchange the truth for a lie, so He hands them over to exchange. And in the last case they do not approve to keep God in mind, so He hands them over to a disapproved mind. The measure you use is the measure you get. This idea is the expression of a simple sense of justice.

Sometimes people describe God’s wrath as the Creator simply letting people go, letting them reap the consequences of their own actions. While that is certainly present in all situations of sin, Paul indicates that God’s wrath is not simply people reaping the rewards of their bad decisions. That would leave God far too much out of the picture, as though the world is a clock He wound up and left to itself.

The God of the Bible, and the God of Paul, is not like that. He is deeply involved with the world He made and with every person in it. We may not like that idea, but actually it says something very special about the Creator and His view of us. He takes us and our choices seriously. In a court of law the highest thing you can say about a person is that he or she is responsible for his/her actions. The person is treated as an adult and takes the consequences for actions done. This is how God treats us in the Judgment. We must face the consequences of our actions.

But the wrath of God expressed here in Romans is not the future eschatological Judgment. Rather it is a present reality. It is happening all around us today. People make their choices; God hands them over to what their choices lead to. God’s wrath is His reaction to sin, whereas His love is His action toward our world to save it from wrath and the justice that sin calls for.

But would not the love of God hold Him back from handing people over to destructive passions? Paul’s resounding answer is no, as he describes in great detail the downward spiral of humanity under the weight of the passions that rule the human heart. But there is an important caveat here. Remember that the three revelations are, in the order presented, the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel, the wrath of God against human unrighteousness, and the power of God in Creation.[12] Paul interlinks these three revelations because he is driving toward Romans 3, where he presents the gospel message in all its glory. But its glory is only apparent to us when we truly see the dark alternative. Without the gospel our experience is all dark and downward because of human wickedness. We have to see how bad we are to realize how good the gospel is. If you don’t know you are sick, you won’t go see the doctor.

Sexual Expression and God’s Wrath

Probably the verses in Romans 1 most discussed today are vv. 26-27, which talk about homosexual expression. These verses are not, frankly, the center of Paul’s argument, but they garner so much attention today because of movements in society to affirm homosexual practice and homosexual union as matters of social justice. What society supports is different from what Scripture sanctions, and the two should not be confused. The first is changeable as a matter of public policies and laws; the second is unchangeable and does not depend on human opinion.

Paul is clearly opposed to homosexual practice. He describes lesbian sexual relationships and male homosexual relationships in quite negative terms. He calls these “dishonorable passions” and contrasts them with “natural relations” between men and women. He calls the homosexual practices “contrary to nature,”[13] and goes on to describe them as “shameless acts” for which the participants receive in themselves the “due penalty” for their deception. Dishonorable, contrary to nature, shameless, deceptive, deserving a penalty—it is hard to see how Paul could be more clear and negative in his evaluation.

But there are numerous objections. We will look at two:

  1. Some suggest that Paul describes people who moved from heterosexual to homosexual practice and that this is what he condemns (focusing on the idea of “exchange”).[14]
  2. Some maintain that Paul describes promiscuous homosexual relationships but either was unaware of loving homosexual relationships or does not deal with them here.[15]

Objection 1: Heterosexuals Adopting Homosexual Behavior

Paul says in verse 27 that men “left the natural use of the female” and burned with passion for other men. At first glance this seems to support a view of heterosexuals shifting to homosexual behavior or bisexuality, indicating that Paul is simply passing over in silence homosexual relations between committed homosexuals. However, two key factors weigh heavily against such a view.

First, Paul is steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures, to which he constantly refers as authoritative in his writings. The Old Testament is clear that sexual relations of any kind between men are completely unacceptable to God.[16] For Paul suddenly to make an exception (silently, mind you) begs credulity. In the midst of condemning the most terrible sins, he would need to be mentality affirming that which the Old Testament condemns. Arguments from silence are recognized as weak in the first place, but then to argue for affirmation or indifference in the very place where Paul is condemning makes no sense whatsoever.

The other factor against this position is that it wrests verse 27 from its context. Recall that Paul is describing how God expresses His wrath in a three-step process (this being the second step). In each of the three examples humans act first in sin, and then God responds by “handing over” the sinners to further expressions of sin that control their lives. We noted above the way in which the “punishment fits the crime”—the Biblical justice that indicates that the measure you use is the measure you get.

It is exactly at this point that the context provides a clearer picture of what Paul means by the term “exchange.” We indicated above that the primal sin was idolatry, where people exchanged honoring the Creator for honoring idols. Paul never indicates that these people were initially worshipping God. Their “exchange” was to reject the revelation God gave in the first place, replacing worship of the Creator with worship of things lower in the Creation order. Just so, the “exchange” that they get in sexual relations does not suggest that they were ever heterosexual in practice. That is what they rejected and instead participated in homosexual expression. The parallel between verses 25 and 27 in regard to “exchange” militates against the idea that Paul is merely talking about bisexual relations or about those who shifted from heterosexual to homosexual practice.

Objection 2: Promiscuous vs. Loving Homosexual Relationships

What of the other objection that Paul is describing promiscuous homosexual practice, not loving homosexual relationships, which he may have been unaware of if they even existed in his day? The fact that they did exist in Paul’s day has been documented.[17] The idea that Paul would be unaware of them is an argument from silence again and illustrates more the modern Western societal prejudices of some who think of Christians as rather prudish and ignorant of non-Christian practices surrounding them. As Anthony Thiselton wryly notes, “We must not misunderstand Paul’s ‘worldly’ knowledge.”[18] Paul speaks to both promiscuous heterosexual desires and practices and homosexual desires and practices. He places both outside the will of God.

In sum, we note that Paul’s presentation in Romans 1 prepares people for understanding the power and value of the gospel to their lives. Three revelations, beginning with Creation, call us to honor the God of heaven. Humanity has sadly rejected that revelation and thus came to experience the revelation of God’s wrath against sin, a biblical sense of justice applied to human rebellion, handing mankind over to the sins it so loves. But hope is not lost, since the downward drag of sin leads us to eventually look up for deliverance. This point is where the gospel message can address human need and draw us back to the Creator, not only in questions of sexual expression, but in all areas of life.

Read Part 2: The Testimony of Nature

______

Notes:

[1] I capitalize Creation here to indicate the event of God’s creative work “in the beginning” or to refer to the product of His work, the created universe. In lower case I use it to refer to any process or activity that makes something new. In like manner, when I refer to God as the Creator, I reference His action in creating the world.

[2] International Conference on the Bible and Science: Affirming Creation, August 15-25, 2014.

[3] Theology, Christology, anthropology, sin and death, soteriology (salvation), ethics, marriage, and eschatology.

[4] All Scripture passages are from the ESV unless otherwise noted. The emphasis is mine to illustrate the concept of revelation.

[5] The Greek term is δικαιοσύνη (“righteousness, justice, uprightness”). In Paul’s writings this term and the word group have a saving perspective, something that God does in Christ to set us right with Himself. See New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 723, 733-738.

[6] Unfortunately, many translations drop the “for” (γάρ in Greek) and make a paragraph or even subject break between verses 17 and 18. The fact that Paul presents three revelations in three verses, 17, 18, and 19, suggests that the apostle saw the subject matter continue straight through the verses.

[7] Notice that the wrath of God is against human unrighteousness, the opposite of God’s righteousness.

[8] Note that human unrighteousness expressed itself through suppressing the truth.

[9] Any attempt to disengage the gospel from Creation results in a misunderstanding of both. Typically this type of disconnection is rooted in an attempt to reconcile the Biblical story of Creation with evolutionary theory. Genesis 1-11 are purported to be mythic without links to history. See part 2 of this series for a critique.

[10] If this assertion troubles you, just suspend disbelief for a while and listen to Paul. We will come back to the topic in the second article.

[11] Greek παραδίδωμι, “to hand over, give into another’s hands, give up.”

[12] It is interesting that Paul presents the three revelations in the reverse order they occurred in history. The first revelation in history was Creation. This was followed by wrath against human sin in the Fall. And finally came the gospel revelation in Jesus Christ. Paul presents them in reverse order because his theme is the gospel that solves the sin problem and brings us back to union with the Creator (cf. Romans 8:18-39). Paul’s gospel message is cosmic, extending from Eden lost to Eden restored—no disembodied, standalone, I-don’t-need-the-Old-Testament doctrine for him. Indeed, undermining the doctrine of a physical, temporal, historical Creation undermines the doctrine of the historical event of salvation at the cross.

[13] παρὰ φύσιν in Greek, which translates literally “by the side of nature,” in contrast with τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν, translated “the natural use,” referring to heterosexual relations. Some argue from the use of the term “nature” that Paul is borrowing from Stoic concepts of ethics that just do not apply to modern concepts of ethics. But see Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans, Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 286, who argues that Paul borrows from the Stoics but that “. . . ‘nature’ also expresses for him the order intended by the Creator, the order that is manifest in God’s creation, or specifically in this case, the order seen in the function of the sexual organs themselves, which were ordained for an expression of love between man and woman and for the procreation of children.” Cf. Anthony Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 450-451.

[14] See M. Stowasser, “Homosexualität und Bibel. Exegetische und hermeneutische Überlegungen zu einem schwierigen Thema,” New Testament Studies (1997) 503-526, and Marti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 109.

[15] Nissinen, 109-113. Nissinen strongly maintains that Paul does not really deal with true homosexuality, that he does not have the conceptual worldview to understand it.

[16] See Lev 18:23 and 20:13. The case of Sodom and Gomorrah and their destruction in Gen 19 is also related.

[17] Cf. William Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 83-96.

[18] “The claims often made that ‘the issue of “homosexuality”—psychosexual orientation—simply was not a biblical issue’ are confused. Paul addresses every form of ‘desire,’ whether heterosexual or materialistic, and distinguishes between passionate longing and action (cf. 7:9). It is true that ‘homosexual orientation’ does not feature as a phenomenon for explicit comment, but to dismiss the parallel, e.g., between heterosexual desire and an illicit habituated heterosexual relationship is itself to isolate same-sex relations from other ethical issues in a way which such writers as Furnish, Scroggs, Boswell, and Nelson rightly deplore. Many also argue that abusive pederasty was the standard form in which Paul encountered male intimacy. But Wolff shows that this is far from the case. Paul witnessed around him both abusive relationships of power or money and examples of ‘genuine love’ between males. We must not misunderstand Paul’s ‘worldly’ knowledge.” Thiselton, 452.

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Thomas R. Shepherd, PhD, DrPH, is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University. He is also the Director of the PhD in Religion and ThD programs. Along with his wife, Sherry Shepherd, MD, he has been a missionary to Malawi and Brazil. They have two grown children and five grandchildren. Dr. Shepherd enjoys playing the cello in the Seminary String Quartet and loves walking, running, and riding his bike to work.