Sunday School Notes: Romans 8:18-25
18 For I reckon that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to compare to the glory about to be revealed unto us. 19 For the eager expectation of creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For creation was subject to futility, not of its own will but on account of the one subjecting, upon hope 21 that even creation itself shall be set free from the slavery of destruction unto the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that all creation groans together and suffers the agony of childbirth together until now; 23 and not only [this], but, having the first fruits of the Spirit, we ourselves also groan within ourselves, eagerly awaiting adoption, the redemption of our body. 24 For we have been saved in hope, and hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for that which we do not see, we eagerly await with patience.
Last week’s passage ended on the theme of suffering, saying that we are fellow-heirs with Christ, if indeed we are fellow-sufferers so that we may be glorified together. Suffering and affliction are the expected lot of the one who follows Christ. For Paul, and many Christians in the first century, this suffering and affliction could likely take the form of physical persecution. But as we look at this next section, we should bear in mind that, firstly, Paul does not specify the type of suffering under discussion. His point here is simply to encourage the Christians there, and, of course, Christians in our age, to endure the suffering because we know there is something much better to come. And secondly, that this is the hope to which we have been saved, and in which we will one day participate in fulness, though we only have a taste of it now.
Paul says that the present sufferings are not worthy to compare against the glory about to be revealed in or to us. It’s easy to think that every time someone in the early church speaks of “suffering” they are always talking about physical persecution. While it’s true that often this is the context, we must remember that these were people just like us. Although we may not share the kinds of persecution they endured, we share the trials of temptation and falling into sin, internal fights within the church (as seems to be the experience of the Roman church), and all the other troubles and tribulations that come about from being human, and living in a fallen world. So we shouldn’t be so quick to disassociate ourselves from our first century brethren. Paul doesn’t define the scope of the term “sufferings,” so we mustn’t assume he has only one thing in mind.
Paul wants to remind his readers (and us) that there is a glory coming, a promised glory, that comes out of our union with Christ, that we will share with Him, that is so amazing and unlike anything we could know here in this mortal context, that not only do the present sufferings not compare with it, but they are not worthy to be compared. This glory is something to be revealed “unto us.” Of all the ways the Greek could express how this glory is revealed, Paul uses the preposition eis, which is usually directional (“to, toward, unto”). It seems that this glory is not something that will simply be shown to us, like Jesus showed his glory to Peter, James, and John on the mount of transfiguration, but that it will include us. It is a glory that we will be shown, and of which we will be a part.
How wonderful is this glory that has yet to be revealed? So much so that creation eagerly anticipates the revelation of the sons of God. Actually, the subject of this sentence is not creation, but the “eager expectation” of creation. This may seem a strange things to say–“the eager expectation of creation eagerly awaits”–but Paul’s point is to emphasize that this is something that the whole of creation has been desperately waiting for. “Eager expectation” translates the Greek word apokaradokia, which literally refers to the stretching of the head, just like you might crane your neck to try to see something just beyond your range of vision.
Creation is looking forward to the sons of God, Christians, being revealed. That is to say, at that time, the whole of creation will see who and what we really are. At the moment, prone to sin and tempted in this fallen world where we often succumb to temptation, it can sometimes be hard to convince ourselves that we are God’s adopted children. And if it’s hard for us to see it, you can be sure the rest of the world doesn’t recognize it. However, on that day, when we receive the glorification that awaits us, there will be no doubt whose children we are.
Why should creation look forward to this day? Because creation was subjugated to futility–not that creation asked for it, but God subjected creation to futility, and He did so in (or with) hope. There was a purpose behind this act of God, and that was so that creation might be set free from the slavery of destruction, or corruption, unto the freedom of the glory of the children of God. When we are glorified, the whole of creation will be affected. There will be a new heavens and a new earth. Bondage to destruction, and corruption will be broken for all the non-human created order.
Paul says that we know all creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth until now–and this groaning is one that even we who have “the firsfruit of the Spirit” experience as we await our adoption. What is this “groaning” and these “birth pangs”? I think Paul is still speaking of the decay and the general effects of sin in creation, and all the things leading up to that final day. Jesus spoke of wars, rumors of wars, nations rising up against nations, earthquakes, and famines as the beginning of “birth pangs” in Mark 13:8. And our own experience of sin and temptation, and the sense of the ephemeral nature of this world causes the Christian to long for that day when Christ returns, creation is renewed, and we receive the fullness of our adoption: the redemption of our body. We have already been adopted. Our adoption has been paid for by Christ and has been sealed by the Holy Spirit. But there is a “now-and-not-yet” aspect to this adoption. While we are God’s children, we are still here in this fallen world in these temporal bodies that are prone to fall. When we are glorified, we will receive the fullness of our adoption that will extend to our very bodies. We will no longer be tempted to sin, and will fully reflect what we are positionally in Christ.
1 John 3:1-3 speaks to this, though in a different context. In this section, John is exhorting his readers to godly attitudes and godly living. He says:
Behold the kind of love the Father has given to us, such that we should be called sons of God, and we are. On account of this the world does not know us, for it did not know him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not yet been shown what we shall be. For we know that when it is shown, we shall be like him, for we shall see him just as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as that one is pure.
Notice what John says: right now the true nature of our adoption has yet to be shown to us. In this condition, in our present state, in these bodies of corruption, we can’t see it. But there will come a day when it is shown, and we will be glorified just like Jesus (although not to the same extent since he is God and we are not).
We were saved in hope, Paul says in verse 24, probably meaning the hope he has just been talking about–the redemption of our bodies and the fullness of our adoption and glorification. But just like the man who tries to crane his neck to see around the hill to his distant destination, we can’t see that for which we hope just yet. And that’s only right. Hope is not hope if we can see the thing for which we hope. If we can’t see what we hope for, we are prepared to wait patiently. I think Paul’s implication there is that we are willing to put up with the present situation, the suffering, the discomfort, and so on for the sake of the promise of what’s to come. We know there is something so much better waiting for us after this life is over, and that makes the present trials much more bearable.
Remember, if you have any questions or comments about this week’s study, please make use of the comments. I would especially like to hear from anyone who was there on Sunday morning and wants to add something I missed from the discussion.