12th August 2002
This talk is the sixth in a series of twelve in which we plan to study the whole of Paul's letter to the Romans. In the first five sessions, we covered:
We now continue into the middle part of the very dense chapter eight, which is mostly concerned with looking forward to God's ultimate purpose for the church, for the world and for all of creation. It's quite a short text, so here it is in full:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.- Romans 8:18-27
Paul's concern here is to lift our eyes above current circumstances - the opposition of living in a fallen society, the difficulties of everyday life, the smallness of our churches and so on - to see where we're headed, and where we are taking the rest of the creation. There is a phrase, ``too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly use'' but in practice, that's not how it works with Christians: those who are most aware of the reality of heaven, and of the restoration of the whole of creation, seem often to be the ones who God uses most in the here and now.
So our overall goal in this study is to come out of it with more understanding of the awesome thing that we're a part of, with our eyes lifted above today's problems, and with a greater awareness of our heavenly home.
Paul brings out these themes in four areas, which we're look at one by one. First, he contrasts present suffering with future glory. Second, he considers the way all of creation will be redeemed with and through us. Third, he considers the how the promise of what's to come is guaranteed. And finally, as a sort of post-script, he discusses how the Holy Spirit helps us to pray.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.- Romans 8:18
Paul gains strength from perspective: he knows that the problems he's dealing with in his ministry are transitory and unimportant - when viewed in the light of what God is doing, and will do, in and though us.
You see this theme throughout Paul's writing: for example, in 2 Corinthians 5, he refers to his body as a ``tent'', contrasted with ``a building from God, an eternal house in heaven''. In the previous chapter of 2 Corinthians, he expands on this theme further:
Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.- 2 Corinthians 4:17-18
It's as well to think about those ``light and momentary troubles'' of Paul's when we start to feel the weight of our own troubles: there's a partial list of what Paul went through in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33. Where we suffer with poor attendance on Sunday mornings, Paul was beaten with rods three times and stoned once. Where we have trouble getting the video projector image as sharp as we'd like, Paul was shipwrecked on three separate occasions, spending a day and night in the open sea. Where we feel the burden of working hard in a small church with lots of responsibilities to be shared between only a few people, Paul was whipped five times, receiving the maximum of 39 lashes that the Jewish law would allow.
Yet all of this, Paul considered ``light and momentary troubles'', because he had vision to see beyond this temporary world to what is unseen and eternal: ``the glory that will be revealed in us''.
Paul's key insight, which does not come easily to our minds, is that what it seen is temporary, and what is unseen is eternal. Our immediate experience, of course, is the opposite: what is seen feels very real and solid, because we live in this world every day; we touch it, we hear its noises, we eat its food. In the face of this constant sensory assault, the things Paul's talking about can seem very far-off and vague to us. But the bible assures us that this is an illusion. I make no apologies for repeating a quote that I used in the previous study: in C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, the Jesus figure of the Narnia allegory addresses the human characters in heaven:
All of you are - as you used to call it in the Shadowlands - dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.- C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
I love Lewis's choice of the name ``Shadowlands'', with its implication that the world his characters used to live in - the world that we live in today - is insubstantial, and illusion, merely the shadow cast by a greater and truer reality. And this is what Paul teaches.
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.- Romans 8:19-22
When we're so aware of damage to the environment, global warming, fossil fuel exhaustion and so on, it comes as a surprise to find that not only is the world going to be restored, but that we are the means by which God will do it!
We're told here that all creation waits in eager expectation for ``the children of God'', but who are the children of God? The New Testament is emphatic on this matter:
Evangelical Christianity has tended to emphasise the individual, with a lot of talk about Jesus as a ``personal saviour'', about ``personal devotions'', ``personal responsibility'' and so on. While all these concepts are completely biblical, it's also true that the bible looks far beyond the redemption of the individual - in that sense, the parable of the prodigal son is just a prelude to the Real Story, which is what the son and the father do together having been reunited.
In this section, we get a brief but powerful glimpse of a part of God's great plan. We know from the Genesis account that all of creation was affected by the fall of humanity (``Cursed is the ground because of you'' - Genesis 3:17), and here we discover that all of creation is restored in the redemption of humanity. There are strong echoes here of a doctine from Romans 5: that just as all humanity is involved in Adam's sin, so all humanity is justified by Christ's sacrifice.
How will this happen? We don't really know. We know that God says ``I am making everything new'' (Revelation 21:5) and that he promises ``a new heaven and a new earth'' (Revelation 21:1), but the language here is in terms not of replacing the earth but repairing and restoring it. We don't know, then, exactly what God is going to do, but we do know that creation is ``eagerly expecting'' it, and that it is waiting for the church to be revealed before it can happen.
This is a mystery, and any attempt to understand it in detail is probably doomed; but we can and should allow ourselves to be moved and inspired by this glimpse of how great God's purposes are.
Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.- Romans 8:23-25
The term ``firstfruits'' indicates the first part of a harvest. It comes from the Old Testament, in which the Israelites were required to make a sacrifice from the firstfruits of each new harvest. Here it's used to refer to our experience of the Holy Spirit: the point here is that what we have experienced of the Spirit is only the first, tiny part of the whole harvest that is to come.
If we are honest, our experience of the Spirit is often disappointing: our prophecies can be vague, we don't see as much in the way of healing as we'd like, and most importantly, we do not always experience closeness to and intimacy with God through his Spirit. There's a reason for that: what we have at the moment is only the beginning. Elsewhere, Paul writes that ``[God] anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.'' (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). We can look forward to a much better day when our lines of communication with God are much clearer: ``Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.'' - 1 Corinthians 13:12.
Paul is very honest and up-front about this. He freely admits that we are not ``there'' yet, which is why ``we groan inwardly as we wait''.
Paul here says that what we're waiting for is ``our adoption as sons'' yet only a few verses earlier, he's said that ``you received the Spirit of sonship.'' (Romans 8:15, and ``sonship'' here can also be translated as ``adoption'', so I think it's the same word in the Greek.) What's going on here? Have we become sons, or are we still waiting for that to happen? It's the same thing that applies when Philippians 1:28 says ``you will be saved, and that by God'' while Ephesians 1:5 says ``it is by grace you have been saved''. In both cases, a process has started, and an irrevocable step has been take - but the process is yet to be completed. We have received the ``firstfruits'', but there is more to come.
Why does Paul write so much about ``sons'' (male) when half of us are female? There are at least two explanations. One is that he was so influenced by the culture in which we was writing that he was only concerned with addressing the male half of his audience. I don't buy that: apart from the fact that it undermines the divine inspiration of the bible, Paul himself argues against such a narrow-minded stance when he says ``There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'' (Galatians 3:28)
A better explanation is that Paul is writing to a culture in which women were not allowed to inherit: property was inherited through the male line only. Against this backdrop, Paul is teaching that we are all, in a legal sense, ``sons'' of God, whether male or female - that is, we all have the same inheritance from the father. This gender-inclusive meaning of ``son'' is supported by the way that Paul freely intermixes the words ``sons'' and ``children'', so that they clearly refer to the same group of people. See, for example, earlier in this passage: Romans 8:19-21 says ``The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed [...] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.''
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.- Romans 8:26-27
I don't have much to say on this: I think it's pretty much self-explanatory.
This whole passage has been about getting a radically different perspective on reality: on who we are, and where we belong. Paul makes the point that ``our citizenship is in heaven'' (Philippians 3:20) and Peter that we are ``aliens and strangers in the world'' (1 Peter 2:11) When we truly grasp that, it affects our whole way of thinking, and gives us a solidity and substance that we can't ever attain if our lives are oriented to this weak, transitory world.
The writer to the Hebrews gets right inside Abraham's mind as he described how he was motivated by his vision of what God had in store for him:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
[Abraham and those like him] were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.- Hebrews 11:8-16
Let's get that vision for ourselves!
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/romans/08b.html.