Romans 1:21–23 says,
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
Exchanging the Glory of God for Images
For three weeks now we are going to be looking at two dark exchanges that characterize fallen sinful man, apart from grace. The first dark exchange is the exchange of the glory of God for the glory of images of man and animals. Call it idolatry. We will talk about that this morning. The second dark exchange is the exchange of sexual relations with the opposite sex for sexual relations with the same sex. We call that homosexuality. That is what we will talk about for the next two weeks, from verses 24–27. (Parents of small children, use wisdom in deciding if you want to make this a teaching time for them about homosexuality. The text and the issues are painful and blunt.)
Today our focus is on verses 21–23 and the first dark exchange that characterizes fallen human culture, idolatry. Remember the context: “God’s wrath is being revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18) The truth that they suppress is a universally revealed truth — a truth revealed in what God has made; namely, the truth of his “eternal power and divine nature” (v. 20). In suppressing the truth, verse 21 says, people “do not glorify Him as God or give thanks.” Therefore they are without excuse against God’s wrath. God’s wrath is just because they have the knowledge and they don’t live it. They suppress it.
Or, to put it differently, based on today’s text: People behold and know the glory of God offered them for their joy and their trust, and they exchange it for images. This response is the same suppressing and the same failure to glorify and thank that we have seen in the last two messages from this paragraph.
So what I want to do today is to focus our attention on this dark exchange to see what Paul says about it. And I am sure that the reason he says anything about it is not to titillate our intellectual interest, but to move us to flee from it with all our might and do all we can to help others escape who are caught in this dreadful darkness of idolatry — which pervades both the primitive cultures and the most advanced technical cultures of the modern world.
Exchanging God for Pitiful Substitutes
I have at least four observations from this text that I think we should make. But first let me make sure you see the exchange itself in verse 23: “[They] exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” Note well: The exchange is of the glory of God for a pitiful substitute.
Now this reality itself needs to be stressed. We talk a lot about the glory of God at Bethlehem. It is our favorite theme. We believe it is the great unifying reality of the Bible and the universe. All is springing from and flowing toward the glory of God. All that is, is for the glory of God. The ultimate value in the universe is the glory of God, not the soul of man. It is important then for a church like ours to see texts like this truth very clearly so that we will realize that this theme, this emphasis, this value is not being laid on the Bible. It is coming from the Bible.
What we see here is that two times in this passage Paul says that the fundamental, bottom-line, root problem with the human race has to do with what we make of the glory of God. In verse 21 Paul says, “Even though they knew God, they did not honor him [literally: glorify him] as God.” That is the fundamental problem with the human race. We do not acknowledge, value, treasure, savor, honor, or make much of the greatest value in the universe: the glory of God. That is our wickedness and our disease and our great mutiny against God.
And then in verse 23 Paul puts it another way: “we exchange the glory of the incorruptible God for an image.” So the great problem of the universe concerns what humans are making of the glory of God. This reality is the issue of your life and this culture and this country and this century and every century, and the issue of all the nations of the world. When Paul reaches to describe the depths of man’s sinful condition under the wrath of God, he does not first deal with the sexual sins of verses 24–27 or the list of 21 sins in verses 29–31. He deals first with the fundamental problem: What do we make of the glory of God? Do we magnify it by treasuring it above all things? Or do we belittle it by preferring other things and exchanging it for created things?
Observations About This Dark Exchange
So it is a huge issue and I pray that as we make these four observations about this dark exchange, God will awaken in us a new love and a new reverence for his glory.
1. This dark exchange of God’s glory for images is accompanied by futile speculations.
Verse 21: “Even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations [or their thoughts].” Futile here means empty, vain, useless. God gave human beings minds with the capacity to reason and imagine and speculate and think and ponder and meditate. Why? So that we might use them to know God and to think about him and speak of him and praise him and devise things in the world which would honor him.
We see this purpose vividly in the story of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4. He uses his mind and might to build Babylon, then says, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power!” (v. 30). God was so displeased with his pride and his failure to use his mind to acknowledge God that “he was driven from among men, and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws” (v. 33).
Then come the key words: “At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven [that is, to God], and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored him who lives forever” (v. 34). When your eyes are Godward, your reason returns. Why? Because your mind was made for God. And when Nebuchadnezzar’s reason returns, he uses it as God intended: “He blessed and praised and glorified the One who lives for ever” (v. 34).
This reality is why Paul says that all speculations and thinking are futile when God is not glorified and thanked, but rather exchanged for images. Futility means vain, empty, useless — and that is what the mind becomes when it is no longer used to know God and love God and treasure and honor God. It doesn’t matter if you are the most brilliant scientist or artist or engineer. Everything you do with your mind, minus God, is futile and empty and vain. First Corinthians 3:20 says, “The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.”
Don’t exchange God for other things. All your thinking will become futile and empty and have no lasting significance.
2. The exchange of God’s glory for images is accompanied by darkness of heart.
Verse 21: “They became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” Why is the heart darkened when people exchange the glory of God for other things? The answer is that the only light in the universe that can fill the heart with light is the glory of God.
Compare physical light with spiritual light, which is what Jesus did in Matthew 6:22. Jesus said there, “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.” In other words, there is no light-producing element in the body; all light comes from outside; the eye must be good if any of this light is to get into the body and let the body see.
So it is with the heart and the spiritual light which God designed to fill it. There is no light-producing element in the heart. All light comes from outside; namely, from the glory of God. (Not from the sun — we are not talking about physical light, but spiritual light.) Jesus is the spiritual light of the world (John 8:12) because “he is the glory as of the only begotten from the Father” (John 1:14). Paul prays that the “eyes of your hearts would be enlightened” because only the prayer-hearing God can enlighten the heart (Ephesians 1:18). And in 2 Corinthians 4:6, Paul says, “God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
The only light in the universe that can bring light to the heart is the glory of God. If we exchange it for other things, we will live in darkness, no matter how brilliant we are or how many fires we may build or candles we may light.
3. The exchange of God’s glory for other things is always felt to be wise by those who make the exchange.
Verse 22: “Professing to be wise, they became fools.” To the natural man, apart from grace and darkened in heart, nothing seems more obvious than that it is more wise to design your own god than to take what you are given. What could be more obviously wise, he says, than to make your own god? The advantages abound: It shows that you are resourceful and that you are creative and intelligent. All of that clearly makes your ego feel good. But best of all, making your own god makes you independent and keeps you in control. You pull the strings. In other words, making your own god lets you be god. And what could be wiser than the choice to be god?
Satan said to Eve in the garden, “‘God knows that in the day you eat from [the forbidden tree], your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ When the woman saw that the tree . . . was desirable to make one wise [Romans 1:22!], she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:5–6). That is the way it was from the beginning and still is. If you want to assume the role of God in governing your life, you will perceive this dark exchange — idolatry — as the wisest thing in the world.
4. However, Paul says, at the end of verse 22, “Professing to be wise, they became fools” — the dark exchange is foolish, even if it looks wise.
That is the fourth observation about the dark exchange of God’s glory for other things. It is foolish to exchange God for images. It is foolish to create your own god or be your own god. It is foolish to lean on futile speculations and to walk in darkness.
Why? Why is this dark exchange of God for images so foolish? Paul gives at least three answers in verse 23, and we will close by looking at two of them (in verse 23) and save the third for next week (in verses 24–27). My prayer is that this response will stir you up to fight against this dark exchange in your own heart, and that you will help other people do the same (which is what evangelism and small groups are about).
4.1. First, Paul shows that the exchange is foolish by emphasizing the infinite difference in value between what you trade away and what you get in its place. The glory of God is of infinite value and what you get in the exchange is infinitesimally small by comparison.
Look how he shows this truth in verse 23: In their folly they “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man.” Literally it reads: “They exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for a likeness of an image of corruptible man.” Now notice: Man himself is already, according to Genesis 1:27, an image of God and not God. But that is not what the exchange of God gets. No, not even that. Rather it is for an image of man. No, not even that. It is for “a likeness of an image of man” who is himself an image.
Do you see what Paul is doing by piling up these words? He is emphasizing the infinite difference in value between the real and the copy. And he does it by saying: When you make this exchange — even for the best thing you can think of; namely, man — yourself (not to mention animals!), you are bartering God for the image of an image of an image. You sell the original masterpiece for a copy of a copy of a copy.
We live in a dying and sick culture where you will hear and read the boast — not the shameful confession, but the boast — that “image is everything.” Well, over against that, the Bible says, the glory of God is everything, and to exchange him for anything is to lose the greatest treasure in the world for an image of an image of an image. That is futile and dark and foolish. Flee from it. Rescue people from it. Don’t be afraid to name it.
4.2. The second way Paul shows that this dark exchange is foolish is by observing that the glory of God is incorruptible and man is corruptible.
Verse 23: “They exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for a likeness of an image of corruptible man.”
Corruptible means perishable. God lasts forever. But man? Isaiah says, “Surely man is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:7–8).
If you value other things more than God, if your life is really driven by another value, then you exchange the imperishable for the perishable. You trade the diamond for a peach forgotten at the back of the refrigerator. You trade the ruby for a banana sitting in the sun. You trade a bar of gold for a bolt rusting in the rain.
Let’s do the opposite, along with the apostle Paul. Let’s count everything else as rubbish that we might gain Christ (Philippians 3:8). Let the world call it folly. It is not. Let’s be like Secretary of State William Seward in 1867 who helped America buy Alaska from the Russians for $7,200,000. O, the ridicule of the people: “Seward’s folly,” they called it. Exchanging seven million dollars for ice!
Well in the last 130 years Alaska has yielded billions upon billions of dollars in resources to America. Things are not what they seem. I plead with you. Open your eyes. And do not exchange your God for anything. Exchange everything for him.