Don’t expect your life ever to be comfortable this side of heaven. Don’t expect ever to be able to settle down contentedly. This side of heaven we live with a constant tension. We live with a deep yearning. Why is that? And how can we make sure that our yearning is not depressing but encouraging?
We’re looking this morning at the central section of Paul’s Letter to the Romans chapter 8 – that is, verses 18-27. You can find that on p 1135 in the church Bibles, and it would be good if you could have that open in front of you.
Romans 8 begins:
So we ought to pause even before we start, to ask what the ‘therefore’ is referring back to. In general terms, it refers to the whole sweep of Paul's teaching from the end of chapter 3 onwards. He’s been spelling out how it is that those who put their trust in Christ have been saved from the eternal death penalty that their rebellion deserves because, as 5:8 puts it,
"While we were still sinners, Christ died for us".
Specifically, Paul is going back to the point that he reached in 7.6 before he launched into his depiction of the war that rages in the believer's life between the old sinful nature which is under sentence of death but not yet finally finished off, and the new Godly nature brought to birth by the work of Christ within the believer's heart.
So in chapter 7 there’s a vivid war report from the front line that runs through the soul of every believer. But in chapter 8 Paul returns to the operations room, as it were, where it’s clear from a strategic overview that though the fighting continues between sin and Godliness, the war is already won. We haven’t got to VE Day yet, but D Day is well behind us, and the enemy is on the retreat.
David covered verses 1-17 last week. If you missed that you can catch up with a transcript or through the website. Now we come to verses 18-27. You’ll find an outline on the back of the service sheet, and you’ll see there that my title is: ‘A Glorious Future’, and I have three headings: first, Present Groaning; secondly, Future Glory, and thirdly, Eager Expectation.
First, PRESENT GROANING
Here in verses 18-27 Paul speaks of three kinds of groaning that are going on in this present age: the groaning of creation; our groaning; and the groaning of the Holy Spirit. Let’s take a look at each of those in turn.
First: there’s the groaning of creation
“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it…”
Verse 21 speaks of:
“[creation’s] bondage to decay…”
And verse 22 says:
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
Paul is personifying creation, as if the whole creation knows that it is not what it should be and that it is not what it will be, and it is looking at the diseased state of humanity and it is groaning with the pain and frustration of it all.
Secondly, there’s our groaning
The normal Christian life is one of joy alongside more or less frequent grief as a result of hard times of one sort or another. Suffering is par for the course in Christian living. Do not expect to escape it.
“Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly…”
Living by faith not only involves the struggle with sin that Paul deals with in chapter 7 and the start of this chapter. It is also a struggle with suffering. So in verse 17 Paul speaks of how believers are to “share in [Christ’s] sufferings”, and in verse 18 Paul is comparing what he calls:
“… our present sufferings…”
“… with what is to come in the future.”
Believers struggle with sin even though they are no longer enslaved by it. And they struggle with suffering. And it all gives rise to a kind of silent scream in the believer’s heart. As Paul puts it:
“… we ourselves … groan inwardly …”
We fail that exam. Our husband has one too many irritating habits. The mortgage goes up. The car breaks down. And there are harder knocks as well. Losing a job. Not getting a job. Bereavement. The person you thought you might one day marry decides to end your relationship. Or suddenly you find yourself seriously ill. For whatever reason, the happiness that we yearn for always seems to be around the next corner.
Then there is the groaning caused by the persecution that believers face in many parts of the world. One observer has said:
The escalating world-wide repression of some hundreds of millions of Christians… is one of the worst evils of our time.
Another said: The murder, torture, and persecution of Christians in the Third World, and even prosperous countries, is one of the worst, and least-reported, of global human-rights abuses … thousands have paid a terrible price for their faith.
And our groaning is perhaps above all a protest about death itself. So back in verse 10 Paul says:
“… your body is dead because of sin …”
In other words, everyone dies physically, whether a believer or not. That’s in store for all of us (unless Jesus returns first). Christians are subject to the ravages of disease, old age, violence, disaster and death like everyone else.
The day will come when we stop breathing. Our hearts are going to stop beating. Our bodies will decay. We know we can’t escape it. And we groan at the prospect.
Woody Allen said, ‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.’ He also said, ‘I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ Nobody wants to die. I remember hearing an old soldier talking about his comrades in arms who had been killed. He was resisting the idea that soldiers willingly lay down their lives. ‘None of them wanted to die,’ he said. Dylan Thomas wrote to his dying father:
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Death is seen as moving from the light of this life into a fearful dark void. We see death as a disaster. We want to cling to life for as long as we can. We yearn for life, but we know death will get us.
We are perishable, powerless, mortal flesh and blood, no better than gradually rotting apples, and certainly not fit for eternity. To mix my metaphors, the tide of physical death is coming in. So we groan.
Then, thirdly, Paul speaks even of the groaning of the Holy Spirit.
“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 [or, better – ‘with wordless groans’]. 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.”
This age is an age of groaning. Creation itself groans. We groan under the weight of suffering, present or anticipated. Even God himself in the person of his Spirit joins in that groaning as he prays in us and for us. But thank God, as believers we have vision of something beyond the suffering that causes the groaning. We have a vision of glory. And that brings me to my next main heading.
So: Secondly, FUTURE GLORY
Just as Paul speaks of the groaning of all creation, and also of our groaning, so he speaks of the future glory of all creation, and also of our future glory.
See here, first, the future glory of creation
Verses 20 – 21:
“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.”
Creation will not for ever be locked into what John Stott vividly describes as…
“… an unending cycle, so that conception, birth and growth are relentlessly followed by decline, decay, death and decomposition.”
Nor will creation be destroyed. But it will be renewed and brought into glorious freedom. That is the future glory of creation.
Then see here our future glory
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
As we’ve learned afresh through Romans so far, God has wonderfully freed believers from both the guilt and the power of sin. That’s a miraculous transformation. That’s the power of God’s Spirit within us. But human beings are physical beings. God's creation is physical. It’s not just our minds that are saved from eternal death by God's grace. It’s our bodies as well.
For the believer, physical death is the gateway to bodily resurrection and entry into the new heaven and the new earth - the new physical and spiritual realm that God will create when Christ returns.
I remember seeing a programme about a talented young British rock climber. He was in Yosemite National Park, in the west of the USA. He’d gone there to climb some exceptionally difficult routes.
We saw him attempting to climb a long slab of overhanging rock at a great height. He was upside down the whole way, almost as if climbing across a ceiling. If he had anywhere to put his feet at all, they were continually slipping, leaving him hanging by his hands. Sometimes he was just holding on by his fingers. Sometimes he would jam his hand into a crack and swing from it.
It was obvious that he was finding the going intensely difficult. His face was often contorted with the effort and struggle of it all. Things were not going as smoothly as he had hoped. His frustration was frequently boiling over and he would groan and cry out at his failure to make progress. What is more, again and again he lost his grip altogether, and simply fell.
But however many times he fell, he knew that he’d make it to the end eventually. His frustration and groaning went hand in hand with confidence. And it was obvious that he was relishing the whole experience. How come?
Two reasons. For one thing, he was on the end of a rope that was firmly held by his climbing companion. Every time he totally lost control and fell, the rope took his weight and he was hauled back up to try again. And for another thing, the location was stunning. And, as he knew would be the case, when he finally slogged his way to the end of the climb, the views were utterly spectacular.
He knew that the struggle was worth the effort for the sake of the destination. Because of his own mistakes, and because of the sheer difficulty of the climb, it was a painful struggle. But it was ultimately secure. It was exhilarating. And it was worth it. In the same way, the struggle of the life of faith will in the end prove infinitely worthwhile.
Our present bodies will not be resuscitated or merely reconstituted in another place like Captain Kirk on Star Trek being beamed up by Scotty. We’ll be very different, while yet remaining the same people. We’ll have new bodies, not in bondage to decay, but bodies more physical, more real than these, bodies that won’t be transient, that won’t wear out. Redeemed bodies. Eternal bodies. And we will see Jesus face to face.
Hard to imagine? Yes it is. Who would think, if you hadn’t seen it, that a rotting apple dying on the ground could become an apple tree? Who would think that a bleeding, dying man nailed to some rough timbers could become the exalted King of the whole universe? But apple trees do grow from mere pips. And Jesus is the living Lord. And death will be swallowed up in victory. And groaning will turn to glory.
So what should be our attitude when we can’t help groaning, but we know there’s glory to come? That brings me to my final main heading, which is this:
Thirdly, EAGER EXPECTATION
Just as Paul speaks of the future glory both of creation and of believers, so he says that the characteristic attitude of both is eager expectation.
First, see what he says about the eager expectation of creation. Verse 19:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.
There’s that personification again, as if the whole creation is holding its breath, longing to see what God is going to make of redeemed humanity.
Then secondly, Paul speaks of our eager expectation if we are trusting in Christ. Verse 23:
Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits 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.
The Christian life should be a life of eager patience and patient eagerness. Paul has just left us in no doubt, in chapter 7, that there’s a continuing and intense struggle between sin and holiness in the believer's life. But it’s an unequal struggle. Sin is done for. Our spirits are alive to God. Our eternal life has already begun. And our physical bodies will not get left behind.
That knowledge transforms the way we think about death, and therefore it transforms the way we think about this short and temporary life. Death becomes the gateway to glory. We can live today secure in the knowledge that our eternal happiness is assured. So the believer can make tough choices and live to please God and handle hardship because he or she knows that there’s a glorious light at the end of the tunnel. We don’t need to live for today. We can be filled with eager expectation of our glorious future. And as a result, we can be content to live for Jesus and for others - whatever the price.
The comedian Vic Reeves, when told on Desert Island Discs that he would have the Bible with him on his desert island, said, ‘Why would I want that? I don’t want the Bible. I suppose I could use it for firewood.’ What a tragedy, because that is to throw hope of future glory into the fire.
I remember when my father gave my mother a special birthday present. She unwrapped a little package and in it were just some keys. At first my mother was a bit bemused and a bit crestfallen. (My father isn’t renowned in the family for his present-buying skills and she probably feared the worst.) But then the light began to dawn – and she rushed outside and there on the driveway was the car that came with the keys. By faith in Christ, Christians have been given the keys to future glory – but we haven’t yet taken possession of it. It’s ours now, but we won’t enter it fully until Christ returns and recreates this decaying universe. We possess it but we haven’t yet taken possession of it. So we should be filled with eager expectation.
That car my mother was given has long since disappeared into the breaker’s yard, never to be seen again. But the dawning light of heaven on the horizon will only get brighter. And our awe and wonder and excitement at it all will never wane as we grow accustomed to it. The glory of the new heaven and the earth can only grow and grow. However loud and pain-filled our groaning becomes, our sense of expectation should always keep on growing, and should overwhelm the groaning.
To finish, let me tell you about a man I once met. He was living on the South Coast, and none of you know him. He had been a Christian over 40 years, as had his wife. Soon after the birth of their first child, his wife fell ill with an incurable degenerative disease. She suffered for 38 years. In the last two years of her life there was a period when her husband was bedridden, and she nursed him even though she herself was dying. When he recovered, he nursed her until she died. He told me he couldn’t help getting rather emotional as he talked about it. That was an understated, rather British kind of groaning. But that groaning was not his overriding reaction to his difficult life. My dominant memory of him is that he was a man of eager expectation. He told me the great thing had been that his wife’s faith had been tremendously strengthened through these terrible trials. He said to me:
The Scriptures were so encouraging. [They] meant so much to me [and were] so helpful – and gave me such strength.
When I met him about two years after his wife died, he was still grieving. His groaning had not yet ended. But he knew that his beloved wife had gone to glory. He knew that glory was in store for him in the future. He was fillled with eager expectation. Let’s learn the same lesson from Romans 8.