Because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them.Romans 1:19 ASV
The argument of this verse is simply that those wicked Gentiles were sinners against the light, not being, in any absolute sense, ignorant of God.
To be sure, they were not as privileged as the Jews, nor did they possess the type of revelation afterwards to be revealed in Christ; but they knew God.
The Father himself had seen to that, for it is categorically stated here that God had “manifested it to them.” The true meaning might actually be much stronger than this version indicates.
The information thus revealed in this verse is of the first magnitude of importance, because there are still people in the world who imagine that they have reason to be critical of God for his neglect of the pagan nations prior to the Christian era.
From this verse, it is certainly known that the Gentile nations were not devoid of light and that there was a manifestation of himself on God’s park to those very nations.
It should be kept in mind that Paul is here speaking of “the righteousness of God” in his dealings, not merely with the Jews, but with all mankind. We shall give this significant theme a little further attention.
GOD’S REVELATION TO THE GENTILE NATIONS
In the person of Adam and his descendants for over a thousand years, all the world knew the Lord, received commands as to how he should have been worshipped, and through the patriarchs were in direct communication with the Almighty.
Lamech, Noah’s father, was born before Adam died.
Once again, in the family of Noah, the human race descended in a new beginning from a single source; and again the entire world knew the one true God; and, once more, through patriarchal communication with God, there was every opportunity for the Gentiles to have known the heavenly Father.
From Noah to Abraham, the pure knowledge of God was kept alive in the world, and the true worship was carried forward by such faithful priests as Melchizedek.
The Jewish nation never existed prior to Abraham; and, therefore, until the times of that illustrious patriarch, all people of every description shared and shared alike in the available knowledge of God.
By the times of Abraham, idolatry was again rampant and increasing, but vestiges of the original monotheism remained, and possibly upon a rather extensive scale.
In the gathering darkness of that long night of idolatry which was about to descend upon the Gentile world, God called Abraham and initiated the device of a chosen people, who would be the custodians of the promise of a Messiah, who would keep alive the true teachings of God, and who were designed to recognize, at last, the Messiah, when he should appear, and present him to the entire world.
This was a service laid upon Abraham, not merely for benefit of the Jews, but looking to the salvation of all people.
God said, upon the occasion of the call of Abraham, that “In thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
God even deigned to give his reasons for the choice of Abraham, that being the ABILITY of that patriarch to command his children after him, an ability which was conspicuously lacking in the Gentiles, and is lacking yet! (Genesis 18:19).
Following the call of Abraham, the Jewish nation itself became a continual witness to the entire Gentile world of the one true God and his truth.
A mere catalogue of examples how that witness blazed in the long pre-Christian darkness is astonishing.
First, through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their families, many of the greatest men in the world, many cities, and vast populations of the Gentiles knew the one true god:
(1) Abraham testified of “the most high God” to the king of Sodom (Genesis 14:22), and a similar testimony was available for the entire group of eleven kings mentioned in Genesis 14.
(2) All the posterity of Abraham through Hagar and Keturah had knowledge of God, these being none other than the whole Arabic nation.
(3) Through Lot, Abraham’s nephew, the whole nations of the Moabites and the Ammonites knew God.
(4) Through the judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah and the disaster to Lot’s wife, the overthrow of those cities was demonstrated as a moral judgment of God upon wickedness.
(5) The salvation of Lot and his daughters, coupled with the prior prophecy of the doom of the cities of the plain, were facts known throughout the East.
(6) Because of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, “God came to Abimelech (King of Gerar) in a dream by night” (Genesis 20:3).
(7) Through Jacob, all of Israel; and through Esau, all of the Edomites had knowledge of the true God.
(8) Through Jacob’s son, Joseph, all of the Egyptians, from the throne downward, knew the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Nor did such glowing witness disappear with the fading of the patriarchal names into history.
All of the plagues were directed squarely against the popular idol gods of the Egyptians. God even gave through Moses a personal message to Pharaoh, as follows:
And in very deed, for this cause have I raised thee up, for to show in thee my power; and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth (Exodus 9:16).
Let it be remembered that Pharaoh was the most powerful monarch of antiquity, and it will be clear that God in no sense neglected to provide the Gentiles with all the light they needed, and with far more than they were willing to receive.
I know that the Lord hath given you the land … for we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt. … For the Lord your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath (Joshua 2:9-11).
The first of the Old Testament prophets was Jonah who carried the message of the one God to Nineveh, the largest city of those times, whose king, nobles, and all of the people repented and turned to God, the fact of which is attested by none other than Christ (Matthew 12:41).
Therefore, at the time of Nineveh’s conversion, concurrent with the contemporary apostasy in Israel, the knowledge of God, at that particular time, probably centered in Nineveh, the great Gentile city, and not in Jerusalem.
Then, there is the testimony to the Gentiles by means of the captivities, first of Israel, later of Judah. Everywhere the Jews went, they took the knowledge of God with them; and there were doubtless many of the Gentiles who learned the truth through this means.
Thus, Nebuchadnezzar learned the truth from the Hebrews in the fiery furnace; thus the Medes and Persians learned it from Daniel, when, in God’s providence, he became the third ruler in the kingdom (Daniel 5:29).
Throughout the days of the Judges, in an earlier era, there were repeated demonstrations of the power and righteousness of God who not only punished the sins of the heathen world, but those of his own people as well.
Throughout the whole period of the theocracy, every nation was given many powerful examples of God’s power and righteousness, practically all of the wondrous deeds recorded in the book of Judges having to do with the preeminence of Jehovah and his superiority over the pagan deities, as, for example, in the destruction of Dagon’s temple by Samson (Judges 16:29), and in the case of the destruction of Baal by Gideon (Judges 6:28).
The years of the monarchy continued the witness, the knowledge of God being so widespread in that era that the kings of the earth either came in person or sent their envoys repeatedly to Israel, and to the prophets, as for example, in the case of Naaman and his lord, the king of Assyria (2 Kings 5:5), and that of the king of Syria (2 Kings 6:13), and in the instance of the queen of Sheba (Matthew 12:42).
The writings of Plato, Xenophon, Cicero, and other philosophers, which still remain, together with the quotations made by Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria from those which are lost, prove that the learned heathens, though ignorant of the way of salvation, were acquainted with the unity and spirituality of God, and had just notions of his perfection, of the creation and government of the world, and of the duties which men owe to God and to one another.
Paul mentioned the latter type of witness in his address at Lystra,
Ye should turn from these vain things unto the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that in them is: who in the generations gone by suffered all the nations to walk in their own ways. And yet he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:15-17).
The good earth itself is thus named as a witness of God’s existence and his goodness toward people.
The order and symmetry of the universe, the marvelous balance in nature, the incredible complexity and efficiency of the natural world, and the heavens which declare the glory of God, are all witness of the glory of God; and yet it must be noted that none of these things tell men anything of God’s love, or of the way of life.
The pre-Christian Gentiles also had access to the moral government which is built into man in the form of a conscience, which is a device so marvelous and amazing.
It was that same phenomenon that challenged and awed Emmanuel Kant, who wrote:
Two things fill me with awe: the starry heavens, and the sense of moral responsibility in man.
This somewhat extended review of the question of just what revelations the Gentiles had received has been given for the reason that they are not generally known, and from the further fact that a knowledge of these things is essential to the vindication of God’s righteousness in all of his dealings with the pre-Christian world.