18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
From John Piper’s sermon The First Dark Exchange: Idolatry
The first dark exchange that characterizes fallen human culture is idolatry. Remember the context: “God’s wrath is being revealed [according to verse 18] against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” 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” (verse 20). In suppressing the truth, verse 21a 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 is the same suppressing and the same failure to glorify and thank that we have seen in 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 to 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.
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 itself needs to be stressed. We talk a lot about the glory of God at Bethlehem. This is our favorite theme. We believe this 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 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 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 verse 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 above all things? Or do we belittle it by preferring other things and exchanging it for created things?