Truth Held Prisoner – Romans 1:16-23

 
Secular literature abounds with stories about kidnapings and unjust imprisonments. Perhaps the story was about a child who was being held for ransom and how his parents got him back. Perhaps it was an imprisonment something like “The Count of Monte Christo” by Alexander Dumas. Or maybe it was like Dumas’ “Man in the Iron Mask.” There are hundreds of these tales, fictional and historical, modern and classical, which are very entertaining and filled with emotion and excitement. Using my imagination only slightly, I can see that same sort of thing in these few verses of Scripture.

The prisoner is Truth, one of the children of the Great King Jehovah. This Truth was freely roaming throughout His Father’s realm, hurting noone and blessing multitudes. But then some wicked men, out of nothing but hatred for the King, took his Son, Truth, and imprisoned him. Of course, the King had no alternative – justice demanded that He hunt down those kidnappers & prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. The Bible demands that kidnappers pay the ultimate price – their lives. Miraculously, Truth was impervious to the torture, the abuse, and the mistreatment of those wicked men. But for a while, the good people of the kingdom could only enjoy His memory. He had been taken from them, and from His Father and had been kept a prisoner in a dark, dank dungeon.

I I believe that with a little time and trouble, we could probably come up with a reasonably good allegorical short story, or perhaps even a Christian novel, running along this theme. But for this morning, let’s keep our thoughts in the form of a sermon. We’ll think of the prisoner, the evil practice, the problem and the product.

Let’s begin with the PRISONER – Truth.

“The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.”

I have been told by my early teachers that “1 added to 1 equals 2?” Is that the truth? If someone says that “1 plus 1 equals 4” then that would be a lie, a falsehood, a prevarication. While truth in arithmetic comes under the dominion of the Kingdom of God, it is not the same thing as “the truth of God.” I have been told that while the earth has one moon, the planet mars has two moons. Is that the truth? Assuming that it is, and that God created those moons, those facts are not the same as “the truth of God.” There are millions or billions of pieces of truth, which are not the truth to which Paul refers right here. The context obviously points to truth directly about the Lord himself. “That which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of HIM from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.”

What are the things that Paul believed to be true about God? We could spend the next month trying to fully answer that question, so we’re going to have to summarize. Paul believed that Jehovah is the one true and living God, and that there is no other God – and so do I. He believed that God, also known as Elohim and Jehovah, was the original Creator of the universe. For the invisible things of him from the CREATION of the world are clearly seen. He also believed that God’s Creatorship meant that the Lord is sovereign over everything and every one in all this universe. According to things that we have already seen in this chapter, Paul believed God has had special prophets, whose job it was to reveal things to men about the Lord. And he believed that the revelations of those prophets were recorded in God’s Holy Scriptures. This means that we are all obligated to believe what the Bible, the Holy Scriptures say. He believed that the Lord is in providential control of all things, even when things occur which are not necessarily pleasant, and yet he specifically says that the Lord is gracious and merciful. He believed that God is the author of a wonderful message of good news – the gospel. And that the theme of that gospel – God’s only begotten Son, Christ Jesus, is the means of salvation, to everyone that believeth. Two other very important points which Paul believed are: that God is absolutely righteous, and that His righteousness has been revealed. And all of humanity has sinned and come short of the righteousness of God.

Paul believed these things and so do the children of God today. But the average man on the street does NOT believe such things. And these last two points of Divine Truth particularly enrage the hearts of human beings. By nature we don’t mind if “1 plus 1 equals 2,” or if there is but one moon revolving around the earth. But to think that there is a God in Heaven, Who rules over this planet, and Who sends world-wide floods, simply because we are a little sinful; Who sends, or at least permits, hurricanes and tornados; who let’s infants die and mass-murderers live; Who demands that we be as righteous as He is, even though this is impossible; And Who has the audacity to be full of wrath against us, for falling short of His impossible standards…. These are truths that we hate to believe, and which we will imprison for ever if we get the chance.

From the days of the first family (not that first family – the other first family – the real first family). Since the days of Adam, and particularly his first child, sinful man has been denying God and His Truth. Humanity has been denying the Lord’s authority to establish moral, ethical and social rules. We have been trying our best to establish our own rules of conduct, religion and wisdom. And in the process our wisdom has become foolish, our religion has become demonic or at least humanistic, and our behaviour has become sinful. As Paul says here, the ungodly and unrighteous have been holding the Truth in unrighteousness.

Now, you might be wondering why I said that the wicked hold the truth of God as a PRISONER.

It’s because of the meaning of the Greek word “to hold.” It is one of those semi-complicated words which can mean something good or something bad. For example, in our Lord’s parable of the seeds and soils, some seed fell on good soil. Luke 8:15 says – “But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, KEEP it, and bring forth fruit with patience.” In this case, keeping the seed was a good thing. And in I Corinthians 11:2 we have the same sort of thing: “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and KEEP the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” And then there is I Thessalonians 5:21 – “Prove all things; HOLD FAST that which is good.”

But obviously, here in Romans 1, Paul is not talking about clinging to the seed, the ordinances, or goodness. He’s not talking about simply grasping something, but to holding it down, restraining it, suppressing it. I hope that you can remember a recent study that we had on the words “let” and “letteth.” We were looking at II Thessalonians 2 – “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what WITHHOLDETH that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now LETTETH WILL LET, until he be taken out of the way.” I believe that the Holy Spirit today has a ministry of restraining, holding back, or holding down the iniquity and sin which Satan would really like to encourage in this world. When Paul spoke of “withholding” and “he who now letteth will let,” he used the same word as here. It means that our God is holding down the wickedness of the world at this present time. One of these days, very soon, when the Tribulation begins, He will withdraw His protecting hand and the world will know chaos which it has never seen before. But at this time, perhaps for the sake of His saints, the Holy Spirit is “holding down” the fullness of man’s and Satan’s iniquity.

This is the way in which “hold” is to be understood here in Romans 1:18. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” The wicked are holding down the Truth, drowning the Truth, imprisoning the Truth of God.

But why would anyone want to hold down that which is true? What is the PROBLEM?

This is a very important question, and it is the theme of this and the next two chapters. In chapter 2 Paul spends most of his time proving that the heart of the Jew was evil towards God. In the rest of chapter 1 he proves that the Gentile – the non-Jew – has an extremely foolish heart. “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.” And then in chapter 3, he summarizes mankind in general, Jew and Greek, wise and unwise, Roman and Barbarian. “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways: And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes. Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” Why would anyone want to hold down that which is true? Why would a murderer want to silence a witness? Why would a liar want to hide the evidence which proves him to be a liar?

This is the reason that the gospel is so important, and why Paul was not ashamed to preach it. “For it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, & also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” It is not natural for a human child to love the holy God and to seek after Him and His Truth. But that is exactly what sinners like us need. As sweet as Abigail, and Sahalie and Gareth might appear to be, they are children of their grandfathers. They have sin and wickedness flowing through their veins, and as soon as they figure out how to express it, express it they will. Two of them probably already have, and the third is right behind them. They will all show themselves to be as foolish and disobedient as their parents and grandparents. “For there is not a just man upon the earth that doeth good and sinneth not.” And there is not a sinless baby boy or a baby girl; teenager, young adult, middle-ager or old-ager.

And the natural PRODUCT of people’s holding down the truth of God is God’s wrath.

In this word “wrath” we have a perfect example of the differences between man and the Creator. Human wrath is an anger which is reaching its utmost and most dangerous extent. It is an anger which has been provoked in some way so that the wrathful man is ready to explode in vengeance upon someone. But how many times has that man been wrong, and wronged an innocent man? Human wrath is different from God’s wrath in that God’s is governed by omniscience. And in man, wrath is a passionate anger that changes his very being. A wrathful man is often irrational, emotional, out of controlled and unthinking. His heart often races and adrenalin rushes through his bloodstream. His face might turn bright red and his mouth and eyes may become contorted. Not so in the Lord, because Jehovah is the same yesterday, today and forever. The Lord is imperturbable, unflappable and unchangeable. As someone has said, “God’s wrath wakes no ripple on the infinite rivers of His being.” The Lord is ever of one mind and one heart. In man, wrath is a malignant passion that does him as much harm as it does the object of his anger. But there is no malevolence in the heart of God, and He is not any worse or better for his wrath. He says in one place, “Fury is not in Me.” God is love and all the attributes of God interrelate and flavor each other. I believe that God’s wrath is permeated with His love. In man, wrath is a painful passion – a selfish passion. The man has been injured in some way, and so he thinks that he must retaliate. He wishes to inflict a greater injury on the person who has hurt him, than what he has received. On the other hand, the unrighteousness and sin of man in no way hurts or harms the Lord. Even though it is sometimes described as “vengeance,” it is nothing like the vengeance of any man.

Something to remember about God – a truth which the ungodly and unrighteous try to hold down … Something to remember about God is that His rudimentary and most essential attribute is righteousness. This means that since He is absolutely holy, any thing less than holiness in man is immediately contrary to the Lord. He doesn’t weigh our little indiscretions, jotting down notes and keeping track of them until there are enough to warrant His punishment or chastisement. Every sin, every transgression, equally deserves the righteous judgment of God. Secondly His judgment of those sins, large and small, will be made according to absolute holiness. He isn’t a little angry because we fibbed, and He is mad when we cheat, and He is furious when we kill. The Lord is equally righteous against every sin, and equally just in every act of judgment. Human wrath is usually an over-reaction, but God does not and cannot over-react, because, for one thing, He doesn’t react at all.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” How many people think of a huge tsunami, destroying towns and villages and killing thousands of people as evidence of the wrath of God? How many people thought of hurricane Katrina as evidence of the wrath of God? These things are not acts of God’s wrath, they are only evidence of God’s wrath. Paul is talking about an Holy Spirit revelation which takes epidemics like AIDS, which takes tribal genocide, which takes a tornado, and brings the mind of man toward the despised and hidden Truth. He is talking about a revelation from heaven. This wrath is designed against all ungodliness – secular, self-centered, God-lacking lives. And it is poured out on unrighteousness – sinfulness, iniquitous lives.

It is the nature of fallen man to hate the Truth of God. But it is the nature of the Lord to reveal the Truth to those fallen men, in some fashion and at some time. And it is the work of the children of God, like the Apostle Paul, to preach the gospel to those people. Because … “it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.”

Have you experienced that power of God? Do you possess that salvation from the wrath of God? Are you absolutely sure?