The text discusses the concept of God’s wrath and judgment against idolatry and unrighteousness. It highlights the Jewish critique of Greek culture and idol worship, emphasizing that the Greeks will be judged in the future for their actions. The author suggests that while the Sibylline Oracles envision the Jews as the ones to bring about this judgment, Paul believes it will be achieved through faithfulness in Christ Jesus.
Why does good news need to be heard regarding the “power of God for salvation”? Why does God have to justify himself by ensuring that the righteous person lives because of faith or faithfulness?
The reason is that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all impiety and unrighteousness of people who possess the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18*).
The present tense “is revealed” has sometimes led commentators to think that the “wrath” of God is a present condition rather than a future event. But the future aspect is clear enough in the next chapter: “Do you suppose, O man… that you will escape the judgment of God? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:3-5).
So the point, I think, is that the historic handing over of the Greeks by God to the dishonouring of their bodies, dishonourable passions, and a debased mind (1:24, 26, 28) is concrete evidence that God is angered by their idolatry and will judge this whole culture in the future. It is clear to the Jewish mind that God has given up on the Greeks, having abandoned them to the degrading and destructive consequences of their original religious revolt.
This process is described in some detail in Romans 1:19-32.
The Jewish critique of Greek culture
First, the “truth” about the living creator had been given to them in the created order: the transcendent reality of his “everlasting power and deity” were evident in the things that had been made. There is no excuse, therefore, for the decision to manufacture idols in the form of mortal humans and other living creatures.
I take it that this is an argument about the Greeks, not about Gentiles or humanity generally. There is no reference here to the original sin of Adam and Eve, who did not become idol-worshippers. What we have here is really a classic Jewish critique of polytheism, with its roots in the Old Testament prophets.
Jeremiah says that the gods who did not make the heavens and the earth will perish “at the time of their punishment” (Jer. 10:11-15). There will be a “visitation also upon the idols of the nations” (Wis. 4:11). It has been 1500 years since the “overbearing kings of the Greeks” set up “many idols of dead gods” to be worshipped, leading people into error and vain thinking. But when the wrath of the great God comes upon them, they will “recognise the face of the great God” (Sib. Or. 3:551-557).
So I would suggest that Paul holds to this sort of historical perspective. Idolatry is not primordial, it is a later invention, and it will be brought to an end in a foreseeable future. According to Luke’s dramatisation of the confrontation, God is no longer willing to overlook centuries of ignorance and has “fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:30-31).
Where he differs, clearly, is over the means by which this end will be achieved. Sibylline Oracles 3 envisages the appearance of a “sacred race of pious men”—the Jews—who reject idolatry, who honour the temple of the great God, who share in the “righteousness of the law of the Most High,” who alone possess “wise counsel and faith and excellent understanding,” and who will bring “great joy to all mortals” (Sib. Or. 3:573-85).
Paul, however, has lost faith in Jewish Law-observance. He is convinced that this “judgment” and transformation will come about only through the faithfulness of, or and faith in, Christ Jesus—or some other construal of the pistis Christou expression.
More on that later. For now we may note that he shares with Hellenistic Judaism the idea that Greek idolatry has led to sexual and social depravity: “the invention of idols was the beginning of fornication, and the discovery of them the corruption of life” (Wis. 14:11-12).
Paul sharpens the critique by focusing especially on same-sex sexual activity, presumably because he saw this as supremely characteristic of Greek sexual culture. I have also made the point that Paul finds in the progression clear evidence of God’s wrath against the culture: the extreme degradation of the body and the debasement of mind—remember, he writes as a Jew who had been blameless “as to righteousness under the Law” (Phil. 3:6)—are proof that this is an irredeemable civilisation and needs to be replaced.
A day of wrath
Paul enters into dialogue mode: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges” (Rom. 2:1). But who is he in dialogue with? Those who judge the people who do the things outlined in Romans 1:18-20.
Since the Greeks do not judge themselves on this account—on the contrary, they “give approval to those who practice” such things (1:32)—we may infer that Paul now implicitly has the hypocritical Jew in view. In fact, we have the vocative “O man” with clear reference to the Jew in Romans 9:20. The Jew who behaves in the same way as the Greek should not presume on the forbearance of God and should realise that he too is storing up wrath for himself “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:4-5).
Paul then briefly sets out the terms and conditions of the coming judgment: life of the age to come for those who “by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and incorruption”; wrath and fury for those who “are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness” (Rom. 2:7-8). This will be the case for the Jew as well as for the Greek. God shows no partiality (2:11).
Can we say what sort of “day of wrath” this will be? In the Old Testament and in the literature of apocalyptic Judaism such language would signify a moment in history when the large-scale social-political order is dramatically restructured in an act of divine judgment. Here are a couple of examples:
- In a “vision against Babylon,” Isaiah declares that “the incurable day of the Lord comes, a day of wrath and anger, to make the whole oikoumenē desolate and to destroy the sinners from it”; the stars of heaven will be dimmed, sun and moon will not give light (Is. 13:9-10 LXX). The agent of this catastrophic judgment will be the Medes; Babylon will be overthrown and will become a home for wild animals (13:17-22).
- In the apocalypse of weeks in 1 Enoch we have a description of the holy Lord appearing with “wrath and plague” in order to execute judgment probably upon the land because the infrastructure of the unclean Gentile presence in Israel will be destroyed, injustice and oppression will be eradicated, a messianic figure will arise, sinners will be delivered into the hands of the righteous, conflict will end, and a new temple will be built (1 En. 91:7-13). Then finally, this “righteous judgment shall be revealed to the whole world…, and all people shall direct their sight to the path of uprightness” (91:14).
In both these passages, and in other texts that might be cited, what is envisaged is not a final, end-of-the-world judgment but the overthrow of a regional power that has brutally oppressed God’s people. What is then often foreseen, as in the 1 Enoch text, is a period of righteousness (cf. John’s thousand year period following judgment on Babylon the great, which is Rome), when the formerly pagan oikoumenē is reoriented around restored Jerusalem as a new “imperial” centre or capital. It will be another “week” until we get to an “eternal judgment,” the final elimination of sin, and the appearance of a “new heaven” (91:15-16).
I would suggest, therefore, that what Paul has in mind when he speaks of a day of wrath that will lead to “glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good” is just this sort of social, political, and religious transformation of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē or civilisation and its reorganisation around a “virtual” or heavenly Jerusalem, from which Jesus will rule as king.
The life of the age to come
The “life of the age to come” (zōēn aiōnion), on the other, probably has its origins in Daniel’s vision of the restoration of Israel following the crisis provoked by Antiochus Epiphanes:
And many of those who sleep in the flat of the earth will arise, some to everlasting life (zōēn aiōnion) but others to shame and others to dispersion [and contempt] everlasting. (Dan. 12:2 LXX)
The thought also appears in Psalms of Solomon:
The destruction of the sinner is forever, and he will not be remembered, when he visits the righteous. This is the portion of sinners forever, but those who fear the Lord shall rise to everlasting life (zōēn aiōnion), and their life is in the light of the Lord and shall never end. (Pss. Sol. 3:11-12)
What we usually call “eternal life” is the life attained by a number of Jews who have been raised from the dead to share in the historical existence of restored Israel. For Daniel this would include both righteous and unrighteous Jews. Paul has adapted this Israel-centred scenario to the wider context of a judgment that would also encompass the Greek-Roman world, and he seems not to have expected a resurrection of the unrighteous to shame, dispersion, and contempt.
Eschatology and the Law
That is an intrinsically Jewish vision, presupposing a very Jewish outlook on history, and it needs to be foregrounded if we are to understand Paul’s argument in Romans; but it has quite disturbing implications for Torah-based Israel.
In the coming “tribulation and distress,” on this “day of wrath,” both Gentiles and Jews will be judged according to what they have done. Some Jews will be found to have done the good works required by the Law. More controversially, in Paul’s view, some Gentiles will also be found to have fulfilled the righteousness required by the Law even though they do not have the Law. Both groups are justified by doing the works of the Law; neither group is assumed to be in Christ.
This is to be understood as judgment, in the first place, of a society as a whole. It is a matter of fundamental justice that those who act righteously, who do not steal, who do not commit adultery, who do not worship idols, should have a share in the age to come.
Now Paul addresses the particular dilemma facing the Jews at this moment.
It has been his experience, as a Jew of the diaspora who has spent a great deal of time, at great personal cost, debating in synagogues across the Greek world from Antioch to Corinth, that his people have fallen a long way short of the religious and ethical standards expected of them. As a result, the name of Israel’s God “is blasphemed among the nations because of them”—as it has been written (2:24). Paul appears to be thinking of this passage:
I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. In accordance with their ways and their deeds I judged them. But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came. (Ezek. 36:19-21)
The implication is that nothing much has changed. The reason for the diaspora may have been forgotten, but by their behaviour the Jews still bring the name of God into disrepute—which is why, incidentally, Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name….”
When circumcision doesn’t cut it any more
Finally, the paragraph on circumcision at the end of chapter two can be pulled in a number of different directions. I’ll simply set out here briefly how I read it.
Presumably, Paul has heard Jews in the synagogues and perhaps some Jewish believers in Jesus claim a sort of eschatological privilege or dispensation on the grounds of Jewish identity as signified by circumcision. His response is that if the Jew does not keep the commandments, his circumcision becomes uncircumcision (2:25).
But by the same token, if a Gentile keeps the precepts of the Law, then his uncircumcision will be reckoned for circumcision. More than that, he will judge or “condemn” the circumcised Jew who transgresses the Law. Perhaps simply, the Jews will be put to shame by righteous Gentiles on the day of God’s wrath.
Again, there is no need to introduce “Christians” into the argument—that option doesn’t appear until later in chapter 3. Only two groups are under consideration: the average Greek in the street who has the “work of the Law”—not the Law itself—written on his or her heart (cf. 2:15), who will be judged righteous or justified on the day of wrath; and Jews who possess the external marks of righteousness but transgress the Law.
What Paul describes in verses 28-29 is not some other category of person who has the Law written on the heart by the Spirit, which might include Gentiles. He is simply making the point that authentic Israel is manifested not through externalities but through obedience. The Law says as much:
Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” (Deut. 10:16)
And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deut. 30:6)