Misleading Headlines

Last Sunday we talked about the wrath of God from Romans 1:18. I really appreciated how Pastor Kodi framed God’s wrath as a response to injustice.. Just today I was scrolling through some headlines and I hope God is angry at some of the injustices I read about. That’s how a good God, a good Father, should respond.

Speaking of headlines though, what about those headlines in our Bibles? You know them. The NIV uses them frequently. In Matthew the first one in is usually “The Genealogy of Jesus,” followed by “The BIrth of Jesus Christ.” The headlines are like a topic sentence for what you are going to read. The translators and editors put them in to help us, and sometimes they can be helpful. One way they can help is when you are not sure of the location of something, you might be able to use the headings to find it.

But sometimes the headings aren’t helpful. One problem with headings is that they can color how you read the verses following. It’s just like a newspaper headline which tells the reader that this is what the article is about; and if the headline tells you what the passage is supposedly about, then you read the passage with that context in mind. They also can break up a passage preventing us from seeing the whole. We see it in parts instead and can miss connections. (One way to fix this is to use a translation that doesn’t add headings or you can use a website like Bible Gateway and change the settings to turn off the headings.)

Many translations add a heading between Romans 1:17 and Romans 1:18, and both of the problems I mentioned in the last paragraph can be seen here.

First is the theme those headings give the following verses. Here are some of the headings that the translators add to the text here.

  • Gentiles are Without Excuse (Common English Bible) With a major change of word (humans to Gentiles) pulled straight from the text.
  • Guilt of Gentile World (Holman Christian Standard Version) Is this passage really just talking to Gentiles? All of mankind? Are Jews exempt? So many questions.
  • Everyone is Guilty (Contemporary English Version) or,
  • Guilt of Humankind (New Revised Standard Version) Those are better.
  • Unbelief and Its Consequences (New American Standard Version) This actually starts getting to the point.
  • God’s Wrath Against Sinful Humanity (NIV) That sounds bad. I thought God loved us, but now he is really angry with us. Not a picture I think Paul wants us to have here.
  • God’s Anger at Sin (New Living Translation) Anger at sin, not at people. Definitely Better.
  • God’s Wrath on Unrighteousness (ESV) Bigger words than the NLT’s version, but the same point.

As you can see, the titles are translating what follows. They say something about the text, that then the reader is more inclined to see as they read it. I read the NIV usually, and its title has always colored my reading of the text. Paul is saying God is angry at people obviously. The title says so. But last Sunday as we SOAPed the passage in Sunday school (9:00, upstairs, South end of the building; come join us!) I noticed that that isn’t what Paul says at all! God’s wrath is against godlessness and wickedness, not against people. And I want God to be angry at wickedness. Don’t you?

So titles color our reading of the text, but in this passage a bigger problem is that it breaks Paul’s thought apart, and we miss the connection between God’s righteousness and God’s wrath. Read this:

“For the righteousness of God in it (the gospel) is revealed from faith to faith, according as it hath been written, `And the righteous one by faith shall live,’ for revealed is the wrath of God from heaven upon all impiety and unrighteousness of men, holding down the truth in unrighteousness.” (Romans 1:17-18 Young’s Literal Translation)

I know the wording is weird, but this version (literal from the Greek) shows the connection between the two thoughts that Paul is trying to make. In the gospel, God’s righteousness is revealed, and his wrath is revealed. When the translators put the break in, we read verses 16 and 17 together: The gospel is the power of God for in it the righteousness of God is revealed. And then we stop. And maybe we keep reading or maybe we pick it up another day, and then we read that God’s wrath is being revealed against wickedness, etc.

But those things are both connected with the gospel in Paul’s writing. In the gospel, God reveals His righteousness and His wrath. They are both good news.

And that is rooted in the Old Testament revelation of God. God reveals Himself to the Israelites in the Exodus. He was completely righteous, unable to be approached or touched, good, responsive to the cries of His people. But He also rained down justice on wickedness. Isaiah says it this way:

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

Isaiah 11:3-5 NIV

There is righteousness (covenant faithfulness that saves His people) and wrath (justice for the wicked). When the translators put that false separation between God’s righteousness and God’s wrath in Romans 1, we don’t see how they are both part of the good news. I didn’t see it for years because of that break. I read it as: “Good news! God’s righteousness is revealed, His rules about how to live. And if we live that way by faith we too can have the power of God. Bad news! God is angry at us because we our wicked.” And that isn’t the complete and full truth.

The gospel is good news because God has revealed Himself to us through Jesus. And there is power in that. He reveals His righteousness, His goodness, His love, His mercy and His wrath against wickedness. They are all part of the good news.

One of the resources I have been using as I study Romans is The Story of God Bible Commentary series volume on Romans. In it Michael Bird says this about why is important that we do not separate God’s wrath from the gospel story.

To preach on wrath without mercy will result either in a hatred for God or in a desperate yet ultimately futile attempt to please him with moral striving and religiosity. To preach on wrath in isolation from a well-rounded biblical theology will reduce salvation to buying fire insurance rather than seeing salvation as participating in the very life of God held forth in Christ. When one speaks of divine wrath, it should not be done with an angry voice and with fists pounding a pulpit, but with eyes welling with tears and hands wide open, as if one were begging a suicidal son or daughter to come down from a ledge, recalling as well that God does not delight in the destruction of the wicked but desires all people to be saved.

Bird, Michael F.. Romans: 6 (The Story of God Bible Commentary) (pp. 65-66). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.

God’s wrath is just the other side of His righteousness. If someone kidnaps someone and enslaves them, righteousness is saving the person, wrath is punishing the kidnappers. Sin has enslaved us. God rescues us and punishes the wickedness. And that is good news.

May you be blessed by God’s word today.

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