Let’s Read the Bible From Jesus’ Perspective
Mari Ikeda (English translation by Raffael Eboku)
Today we will be reading from Romans 1:18-32. I think this passage teaches us more about how to read the Bible than the content itself.
Before we start, let me clarify a few things. The Bible is the Word of God, spoken through human languages. Since it is through human beings, it is subject to the limitations of time, culture, and the writer’s personal values and prejudices.
And because we, as readers, have the same limitations, it can happen that the writer’s errors are compounded by further misinterpretations. So it is wrong to treat the Bible as something sacred, without a single word of error.
The Bible is not God. Yet, the Bible is God’s Word because God’s Spirit works in both the writer and the reader to teach us about God.
When I say that God’s Spirit works, it sounds a little supernatural, but I think it can be rephrased as having the perspective of Jesus. If you are reading the Bible and certain words seem to contradict the love of Jesus, it could be the writer’s mistake. Also, if the interpretation of a passage seems to contradict the love of Jesus, it could be a mistake of the interpreting reader. Therefore, when reading the Bible, it is important to take Jesus’ point of view and read it in light of the love He taught us on the cross.
That’s why I made today’s illustration depicting what Jesus says, “The difference between me and you is you use scripture to determine what love means and I use love to determine what scripture means.” © nakedpastor.com）
I thought today’s passage in Romans teaches us this very well, so I will briefly summarize what Paul was trying to say in the first half, and then interpret Paul’s words from Jesus’ perspective in the second half. If you find anything that makes you think, “Hey, this doesn’t seem right” while reading the passage in the first half, I believe that Jesus, who is living inside of you, is teaching you. So please remember that part.
Now, let’s move to the core content. We will first only read verse 18.
A. What Paul wanted to say
1. Theme: All people are sinful (18)
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,
The tone of the letter has changed considerably from the starting friendly one because the greeting at the beginning of the letter is over and we are about to get down to the main topic.
The main topic is about the division between Jews and Gentiles, which I introduced to you in my first message of Romans. As the first step to explain how we should overcome the division, from here up to chapter 3, Paul is trying to say that both the Jews and the Gentiles being equally under sin. In 3:9-10, he says that “There is no one righteous, not even one. Both the Jews and the Greeks are under sin” That is what Paul is now attempting to say. That is why this 1:18, all humans are sinful in nature, is the main topic from here to chapter three.
Let’s continue to verses 19-23
2. Idol worship is the sin we all have in common (19-23)
19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Our sin is not recognizing God as God and making things that are not God into God. This is called idol worship. Even if we don’t worship idols made of wood or metal, we all have the propensity to make ourselves into gods and idols. This (sinful nature of ours) grieves and pains God most. Unfortunately, there is no one who is free from this sin. And as a result, our society, regardless of the times, is full of evil.
That is further described in the following verses (24-32), so let’s continue reading them. I will however skip verses 26-27 now. I will explain why I skipped them in the last part of my message.
3, As a result, human society is full of evil (24-32)
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
This depicts the reality of our society. As a result of not recognizing God and taking ourselves as Gods, instead of loving each other, we fight and hurt each other.
In summary, we are all guilty of failing to see God as God, and this is the root cause of our constant suffering. All the injustice and inequality in society, as well as the hurt in our personal relationships, can be traced back to each of us who think we are God. This is what Paul was trying to say here, and it is important for us as well.
But if we carefully examine Paul’s words, we find a few things that stick out. The parts that you felt uneasy about may not be the same as the parts I will address, but I would like us to read the Bible again while paying close attention to Jesus’s perspective.
B. The insights that are revealed when we read from Jesus’ perspective
1. Misunderstanding: God is angry with us and is deliberately causing us to sin (18, 24, 26, 28)
This part begins with the phrase “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven” and verse 24, 26 and 28 can be interpreted as saying “God is intentionally making us sin”
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.
28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.
If we read this as a whole, it could be interpreted as “God is angry with us, so he intentionally makes us suffer by continuing to sin”. But would Jesus, who gave his life for us on the cross, be the kind of God who would want that? No, I don’t think so.
So can we say Paul is wrong? I don’t think so. God is a God of justice, who rightly discerns right from wrong and makes a just judgment. He is angry with us for our sins and evil and will not abandon us in that state.
But God decided not to bring his wrath and judgment on us for our sins. He decided that He would take the judgment upon Himself and forgive us instead. That was through the cross of Jesus. This is because God is not only perfectly just, but also perfectly loving.
Also, as for the question of whether God makes us sin on purpose, I think Jesus and Judas are a clue. Jesus did not set Judas up to betray him, but he did not stop him either. As a result, Judas ended up destroying himself. Jesus was not angry with him, but only grieved.
Our sin brings nothing but suffering to ourselves and others. God knows this, but He waits for us to admit it to ourselves and does not force us to change.
It is God’s patient love. At the same time, it is also God’s judgment in the sense that we are left to suffer in our own sins. God has already given us salvation in the form of the cross so that we would not have to suffer that judgment, but we are refusing to accept it.
2. Misunderstanding: We can understand God through nature and our own conscience (19-20)
19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
When we read this, we think we are being told that we should be able to understand God through the natural world and our conscience. But if that were true, then Jesus didn’t need to come to this world.
The beauty of nature and the goodness of human beings may give us a sense of a God-like being, but that is hardly enough to understand who God is and how he relates to us. We can only understand God’s love and justice through Jesus, who died on the cross. I believe that Paul, just before this, had just emphasized the power of the gospel, and he must have thought so, too.
So what Paul was trying to say here is that not knowing God is not an excuse.
Paul denied the question that if the Jews who knew God lived bad lives and the Gentiles who did not know God lived bad lives, the Gentiles who did not know God would be less guilty. He wanted to say that both the Jews and the Gentiles were equally under sin; but I doubt if these two verses were convincing to the Romans anyway.
3. Error: Homosexuality as sin (26-27)
Lastly, I’d like to focus on verses 26-27, which I skipped earlier. I think these are the most important verses of today’s passage in our time.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
This verse is one of the Bible verses that has been used as a basis for making homosexuality a sin. But I believe it is wrong in two ways.
First, I think it is a rude interpretation that ignores the cultural context of the time to interpret this passage as condemning homosexuals today. Here, Paul is condemning some kind of same-sex sexual relationship.
But I don’t think it refers to a relationship of mutual respect and love on an equal basis, like same-sex couples do today. This is because in those days, it was not the norm even for heterosexual couples to love each other as equals.
Let me deviate a bit from the main topic. It was not until the enactment of the Constitution of Japan after World War II that marriage was stipulated to be based on the consent of both sexes. Until then, marriage was a house-to-house arrangement, and the consent of the patriarch took precedence.
Not only in Japan, the ideas of gender equality and respect for individual human rights are values that were established in the modern era. Our idea that it is normal for men and women to fall in love or get married on an equal footing based on the free will of both parties was not the norm until only a few decades ago.
Even more so, it was an inconceivable concept 2,000 years ago when the book of Romans was written. Therefore, the concept of equal and intimate relationships between people of the same sex, which we call homosexuality today, would not have even existed at that time. So, I think it would be rude to interpret Paul’s words as a condemnation of homosexuals today.
However, the kind of homosexual relationship Paul is condemning here is a matter of conjecture. He may have been referring to pagan religious rituals or the kind of sexual abuse that was part of the Roman way of life.
But whatever it really was, I think we should at least keep in mind that this was not important to Paul. Paul’s intention here was to give an example of Gentile immorality. It should have been Paul’s intention that the issue of sexual immorality, or possibly sexual abuse, should just be skimmed over and not have to be explained.
So, one more reason why I think it is wrong to use this passage to make homosexuality a sin is that even in the unlikely event that what Paul is condemning here is really homosexuality, it is Paul’s prejudice and error, and we do not have to necessarily accept it as such.
In another letter (1 Corinthians), Paul says that women should have long hair, that they should be silent in church, and so on. There are not many churches in the world today that accept these things as they are.
We know from various letters that Paul had many trusted female companions, so I don’t think that Paul was a terrible misogynist. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that Paul was greatly influenced by the patriarchal values of the society of his time.
And even in the unlikely event that the society of that time considered homosexual relationships to be immoral and Paul condemned them as normal, those were the values of that time. There is no reason why it should be applied to the present day. It is simply an outdated idea.
Today I talked about how to read the Bible, but my interpretation is just my interpretation, and it may be different from yours or simply wrong. Even if we say that we read the Bible from Jesus’ point of view, there are limits because none of us can be Jesus.
Nevertheless, we can all come closer to Jesus’ perspective every day. Through the words of Jesus recorded in the Bible, the event of the cross, the things we have been taught by those who believe in Jesus and live with Him, and the things we have learned through our own walk with Him, we can all get closer to Him little by little.
And that is the only way to interpret the Bible thru Jesus’ love. Researching Bible knowledge, historical background, etc. is harmful unless it is done in the light of Jesus’ love.
Let us continue to enjoy and seek what Jesus wants to say to us through the Bible, always using the love of His cross as our guide.
(Prayer) Dear Jesus, may you guide our thoughts so that we will not use your name or your words to hurt others. We are imperfect people who will make mistakes in our lifetime. Please renew and guide us daily by your Spirit and by your love. Jesus, we pray this in your mighty name. Amen
The Bible teaches us about God and what it means to live a life of faith, but it is not God in and of itself. The Bible is God’s word revealed through human beings. Because it has been revealed through people, it is bound by time and culture and the authors’ own values and prejudices. On top of that, we, the readers of the Bible, have the same limitations, often layering our erroneous interpretations on top of the authors’ errors. When we read the Bible, it is important to read it from Jesus’ perspective as much as possible.
- How can we move closer to adopting Jesus’ perspective?
- How should we respond to those who condemn homosexuality based on verses 26-27
For the children (For the Guardians)
Romans 1:26-27 is often used as a basis for considering Homosexuality a sin. Tell the children that the church has made homosexuality a sin and has tormented homosexuals. Then tell them that the Bible is sometimes wrongly interpreted by us. It might be a good idea to ask your children what they are learning about homosexuality in school.