Romans 8:18-27, Suffering and Glory

Originally posted February 18, 2020, at Women of Purpose.

The passage we studied last week, Romans 8:18-27, opens with a verse that always tugs at my heart, and often brings me to tears. Building on his previous thought, that we suffer with Christ in order to be glorified with him, Paul declares “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). When Paul wrote this, he wasn’t making light of our present suffering. Paul knew what it was to suffer. When he wrote this, he was making much of the glory that is to come for all who are in Christ. This is even more evident in the parallel passage he wrote in 2 Corinthians:

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:17-18, emphasis mine.)

According to Paul, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, suffering is temporary in light of eternity, and it has a purpose. Our suffering matters. Romans 8:17 spoke of suffering particularly as a Christian, but in verse 18 Paul broadens it to “the sufferings of this present time,” which encompasses all suffering that we may experience. And he has placed this encouragement directly between our adoption in Christ and the glory that we eagerly anticipate in order to encourage us to persevere through our trials and afflictions. Looking even farther back, I can’t help but see this encouragement also fueling our daily battle with indwelling sin (8:13), exhorting us to keep fighting, because glory is on the horizon!

And the glory that is to be revealed is the glory of “the revealing of the sons of God,” and “the redemption of our bodies,” which means it’s the glory of when Christ returns. The Lord’s return is a favorite, if not entirely clearly understood, topic for the writers of the New Testament:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)

(See how John agrees that this hope of glory encourages us to pursue holiness?)

 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Cor. 13:12)

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
(1 Cor. 15:50-55, quoting from Hosea again, just sayin.’)

We may not be able to wrap our minds around what it will be like to inhabit our glorified bodies, but we can trust the Lord that we will. This is a promise that has been made to us in Scripture, so we can rely on it to come to pass in God’s perfect timing.

And we’re not the only ones longing for the glory of the fulness of our redemption, but all of creation is also eagerly awaiting the day when all things will be made new. For, when God pronounced his curse upon Adam, creation was subjected to futility right along with the human race. An innocent victim of man’s sin, the collateral damage of the fall resulted in the whole creation being subject to decay and failing to live up to its potential. Though everything that God made was pronounced to be “very good” before sin, the effects of the fall have corroded our earthly home, from natural processes to the active destruction caused by sinful men acting in rebellion to the mandate to responsibly steward the earth. From strip-mining to tsunamis, the earth is groaning to be set free from its bondage to corruption.

And what a restoration it will be!

The good news is that the planet will be saved—in a far more significant way than green politics can promise. Creation is going to be “born again.” According to Paul, the universe is “groaning together in the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8:22), anticipating what Jesus calls the “renewal of all things” (Matt. 19:28, NIV; Greek, palingenesia: palin, “again,” and genesis, “beginning”). Earthquakes and tornadoes, hurricanes and droughts—these are not death pangs but birth pangs. . . . Both individual Christians (cf. John 3:3, 5) and the world itself are to be remade. The cosmos shares a future along with believers. How could it be any other way? What environment, after all, could glorified believers—with new, resurrected bodies—occupy other than a physical one? It stands to reason a new world must be created for us to dwell in.[1]

The groaning of creation leads to the groaning of believers as “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit. . . wait eagerly for adoption as sons” (Rom. 8:23). This firstfruits of the Spirit refers to our indwelling by the Holy Spirit in the fullness of his indwelling—not that there’s a little bit of the Spirit now, and more to come. No, once we are indwelt we aren’t waiting for more of the Spirit, but he is the firstfruits in that the Spirit is the down-payment guaranteeing the fulness of our salvation to the end—the day we step into glory. We have already been adopted, we await the day when we are no longer subjected to death and sin and pain and corruption. Some day we will be delivered from all the effects of the fall and will be fully transformed in glory. We live in the tension of the “now” and the “not yet,” and it causes us to groan for the “not yet” to become the “now.” The firstfruits of the Spirit gives us a taste of our redemption and tells us, “But wait, there’s more!”

Seeing the beauties of creation, still glorious in its fallenness, causes us to long for more, as C. S. Lewis wrote so beautifully:

We do not want merely to see beauty . . . We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. . . . We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumors that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.[2]

As we long for the freshness and purity of the fulness of our redemption, the Holy Spirit who indwells us groans with us, intercedes for us, and prays with and for us in our weakness. And the Spirit’s intercession for us is fruitful, because he who searches our hearts [“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!Psalm 139:23-24] knows what his own mind and will are and is therefore able to intercede for us according to God’s will. The Holy Spirit knows the meaning of our groaning—the prayers we can’t even formulate in our deepest need—and he knows the meaning of his own intercessory groaning—reaching beneath our perceived wants to our actual needs and praying perfect prayers for us.

How comforting it is to know that the Spirit is interceding for us in harmony with the will of the Father? “And since there is perfect harmony between the persons of the Holy Trinity, so that the Spirit’s intercession, accompanied by groanings, coincides completely with the Father’s will, the result must be that this intercession is always effective. It never fails.”[3] And so to pray “in the Spirit” (Jude 20) is to submit our will to the will of God as we pray, realizing that though we may not know his will, his Spirit does. This gives us the confidence that he hears our prayers (1 John 5:14). This is the Spirit’s real help in our weakness—our human frailty and limited knowledge—when we don’t know what to pray as we ought (Rom. 8:26).

What about when we do know what to pray for, but it terrifies us? When the clearly marked path of God’s will, as seen in the spotlight of Scripture and witnessed by the testimony not only of our trusted Christian confidants but also plain reason, will be difficult at best and painful, even heartbreaking, at worst, but we know it’s what we must do? The Spirit’s help in our weakness, praying us through these valleys, is not always tangible, but it is as real and true and certain as any of God’s promises in Scripture. For, remember, our Savior also struggled in prayer with what he clearly knew to be God’s will. When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, knowing full well what was coming, his soul very sorrowful, even to death (Matt. 26:38), he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Matt. 26:42). The author of Hebrews assures us that our high priest sympathizes with us in our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15), and Jesus surely remembers that agonizing night of struggling in prayer. He promised to send the Holy Spirit to be our indwelling helper, to be with us forever (John 14:16-17), and Paul is telling us one of the ways he helps us. He helps us in our prayers.

[1] Derek W. H. Thomas, How The Gospel Brings Us All The Way Home (Orlando, FL.: Reformation Trust, 2011), 73-74

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 42-44 quoted by Derek Thomas, 77.

[3] William Hendriksen, Romans, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1980), 278.

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