Romans 8:18-21 (Part Five)

So far, Romans 8 has been the “good news” chapter. It’s told us how God solved the problem of our sinful nature making it impossible to meet his standards: those standards have been met by Christ on our behalf, and we’ve been given the indwelling Spirit who conforms our desires to God’s – as we seek to live by the Spirit, not by the flesh. So far so good. But then Paul sent us for a spin in the final verse we read yesterday:

Romans 8:17 if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

This is an acknowledgement that, as good as life in the Spirit can be, it’s not the finished product. We’re still not at the point in which we get to “share in God’s glory.” That still lies in our future. And what’s more, there’s going to be suffering in the meantime. Just like Jesus suffered before he got to share in the glory of God.

We live in between the times: through Jesus’ victory and the indwelling Spirit, we’re being remade in the image of God. But we’re still waiting for a time when that restoration project will be completed – both in us, and in all of God’s creation. In the meantime, we wait. Sometimes we suffer. So here, in Romans 8, Paul takes some time out to acknowledge this reality, and help us work out how to deal with it.

Think of the end result

Firstly, he says, we need to remember how good the future will be:

Romans 8:18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

How can Paul say that? I mean, our present sufferings can be pretty bad! Isn’t it a bit trite to say “don’t worry, it’s nothing compared with the end result”?

Paul might have a point when it comes to short-term suffering for a clear purpose: you haul yourself out of bed at 5am every morning to exercise, so that you’ll get fit and healthy; you put in hours of gruelling study to pass an exam, so that you’ll get the career you want; you work hard and save, so that you can afford your dream holiday.

But what about enduring, perhaps life-long suffering that seems to have no clear link to a purpose? What about those who endure chronic illness and disability? Or who spend their lives caring for someone with chronic illness and disability? Or the countless other ways in which we experience seemingly meaningless suffering for no good reason? How are Paul’s words even vaguely comforting?

Yet it’s a mistake to think that Paul is minimising our present suffering. After all, he knows what suffering is all about! (You can read his list of hardships in 2 Cor 11:23-29, or his chronic “thorn in the flesh” condition in 2 Cor 12:7.) Given the reality of our present suffering, and especially given the reality of Paul’s present suffering, his point is the inconceivable greatness of the glory that awaits. In other words: if you think your suffering is bad now (and it is!), your future glory will be so incredible that your sufferings won’t even be given a second thought! So hold on to that thought, to get you through the darkest of times – the brightness of the dawn that’s coming will, when it comes, make the darkness seem insignificant.

You could compare it with an olympic athlete enduring a harsh training regimen by imagining the future moment when they receive the gold medal, and all the suffering seems (for a brief moment) worth it. Except that would still not capture the difference in magnitude Paul is trying to convey between our present suffering and our future glory.

So what makes that future glory so immeasurably great?

God is doing something huge!

The reason is that God is doing something huge. Something global. Something universal.

Romans 8:19-21 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

His plan involves far more than just you, and your life. More than just us, as God’s people. The entire cosmos is being renewed. The universe is being recreated. Everything is being put right.

And God has intertwined the fate of his creation with the fate of his children. All of creation is being held back from being put right – it’s been “subjected to frustration” -waiting for us to take our rightful place at the centre of it all. To be his image-bearers, reflecting his glory in his world, just like he originally created us to be (Gen 1:27-28).

It’s a bit like a wedding. It’s an elaborate affair, with churches and reception halls, cars and suits, dresses and bouquets, food and drink, guests and celebrants, bridesmaids and groomsmen – and yes, even the groom – all carefully made ready for the big day. But when the time comes, everyone waits. The whole complicated carnival comes to an awkward, expectant standstill as it awaits the bride to be “revealed.” The entire show can’t go on until the main player turns up (usually fashionably late, sometimes unfashionably late). The lower backs of the piano players begin to groan, as they wait in eager expectation to be liberated from playing elevator music, and to enter into the glorious freedom of the bridal march. (That got a bit autobiographical there. Sorry.) The point is: the whole wedding has been set up so that it only has meaning and purpose when the bride turns up. The party can’t start until the guest of honour arrives.

So too with the great wedding party God has planned. Everything’s ready to be put in place. Creation will be renewed and set right. All the pieces of the cosmos will be put back in their proper order.

And yet, it waits. It groans. The party can’t start yet. Why? Because we’re not there. The bride hasn’t arrived. God’s people haven’t yet been prepared for the wedding feast. We’re still having our makeup and hair done, being transformed once more into the image of God. And so all of creation waits for us: for the glory of God to be revealed in us.

Why did God do this? Why did he intertwine the fates of his world and his people? It’s the way it was always supposed to be. His image-bearers ruling his creation. So God subjected his creation to frustration. And he did so in hope: so that when we take our rightful place as God’s image-bearers, creation will also be put right.

But for now, the image-bearers who were to rule creation have become cracked and broken. The image is distorted. And so creation now has become fractured and distorted as a reflection of that. It’s an outworking of the consequences of our sin: the world we were supposed to rule has, to some extent, turned against us.

But God did this not merely as judgement. He did it in hope. And by “hope” we mean with a sure expectation – a positive purpose. Not “on the off chance this might work…” He did that in the certain hope that when his image-bearers are restored, all of creation will reflect that restoration. He won’t make his world right until we are put back in our rightful place.

So as you endure your present suffering, remember that it’s not just you that’s frustrated and expectant. All of creation is there with you, waiting for this renovation rescue project that’s so spectacular, when it happens you’ll no longer think of what’s happening now. That’s how great it is.

It’s a bit like childbirth. But we’ll get to that image tomorrow…

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