“I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity (futility), not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” Romans 8:18-23
I have talked a lot about narrative in this study of Romans, as opposed to abstract theological concepts, and the reason I have done so is because it is true that Paul had several Old Testament narratives in mind as he wrote to the Roman Christians. Recall that Paul is continually referring to what he called “the Promise” and that as you know was God’s promise of the land (the land we call the Promised Land) to Abraham and his family forever. Paul is crystal clear about one thing: being a member of Abraham’s family is the difference between life and death. But it is highly complex and so Paul spent a huge amount of time writing about Abraham’s and Sarah’s reproductive issues as well as the fact that their true children were not limited to their children according to the flesh, by which Paul simply meant ethnic Jews, his own kinsmen by race and heritage. Paul uses Isaac, the son of the promise, and his two sons, Jacob and Esau, to drive home this most recent twist in the Abrahamic plot. Being an ethnic son of Abraham is not equivalent to being a true son of Abraham. And the Gospel for today, with the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Canaan (a non-Jew) and the healing of her child makes it clear that Paul’s narrative in Romans has its origin not in Paul’s imagination, but rather in the life and ministry of Jesus himself.
“For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:26-29
And yet in the midst of all this family talk it remains true that God has called individual persons into existence and to glory. Not one of us exists by necessity, nor do we exist by accident, but you exist singularly from God’s true love. And God has gifted each one of us with subjectivity, an interior life of wonder, and part of our salvation in eternity will be the flowering and maturing of ourselves as individual persons, subjects who are not merely absorbed into a greater whole to lose our personal consciousness, our individuality, our souls, our awareness of that which is outside of ourselves. There are religions in the world that understand salvation to mean being absorbed into a whole and no longer existing as you. But that is not the Christian faith and Paul makes it unmistakably clear that yes we are members of the Body of Christ, grafted into the Church, but we are and always will be personally responsible to “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” and by doing so to realize the “righteousness of the Law.” So we are and will remain individuals – but better to say members grafted into Christ and our future is one that we are personally responsible for, but it is a future that will involve perfect self-transcendence for God’s good will. Anyway, creation is not in a state of rebellion we are and creation is sick unto death because it is joined to us:
“For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity (futility), not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”
Thus Jesus’ action in bringing forward God’s final cause will not be an exercise of crude power and domination; it will rather be the final application of his redemptive love. Paul uses his considerable poetic gifts to get this picture across to us. The Psalmist sings that the hills of Zion skip like rams and he declares that the “rivers shall clap their hands and the little hills will be joyful together.” In like manner, Paul uses the poetic devices and skills he has learned from the Old Testament and the Greek poets to open up the mysteries of things to come. Paul is not suggesting that trees and streams, mountains and oceans have some form of self-consciousness or intentionality or feelings. He personifies the nonhuman creation casting it as different characters – for example, as a woman giving birth, groaning and heaving and yet full of expectation and hope.
“For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.”
The language “the revelation (or manifestation) of the children of God” means the children of God, both the living and dead, resurrected, united, embodied, transformed and taking our place in the Kingdom of God on this earth. That’s important to remember and it is all of one package. Paul says that creation is keenly watching and waiting in full confidence for this finality. He mixes the metaphors all up – the word that we have translated “earnest expectation” is one Greek word that presents creation now as a runner completely focused, straining with his head outstretched toward his goal, which is literally what the word means. The Roman Christians would have understood that the watching and waiting never stops, never weakens until the thing waited for finally appears.
And then again one may take it that God’s creation is, in a manner of speaking, the slave of death, awaiting her liberation by the children of God. Paul piles metaphor upon metaphor, image upon image to get at his meaning. The end will soon come and there will be an unveiling, a final scene played out upon the same stage where it all began, in the garden of creation. Creation is likened to a woman giving birth, a slave awaiting liberation, and an audience eager for the last act, eager to see the children of God take their place in God’s Kingdom. The audience is on the edge of the seat in anticipation:
“For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.”
The idea that Paul is opening up in Romans reaches its conclusion here in chapter 8: all of God’s creation was from the very start bound to man, bound to Adam – not at all free and self-governing but wholly dependent upon man. Creation’s destiny is one with our destiny with a qualification: since the fall creation and its ultimate destiny has been bound up, not with the ungodly that have rejected Christ, but with the children of Light, with the children of God and their taking up their rightful place in glorious Kingdom of God.
“For the creature was made subject to emptiness, meaninglessness, unreality… (Creatures) enslaved to decay, to rottenness because of man’s sin… the whole creation groaning and travailing in pain…”
Romans 8:20 & 22
Right in the middle of the narrative Paul sums up our story as a history of pain made manifest in the bleating, bellowing and groaning of God’s creatures who have gone from being worshipped to being dinner, or entertainment or garbage – a means to any end man the atheist desires as he bleeds the world dry. Mankind’s final cause for creation is tragically the supermarket, the shopping mall where worshippers gather daily, and the futility of the city dump.
Creation’s anticipation is poignant because she is suffering this bondage to death entirely because of her existential bond to man and his destiny. The word we have translated “vanity” is better-translated “futility.” “Futility” is the use of an object for an end for which it was not designed. Man’s futility and creation’s futility began with Adam’s distortion of his God-given work to husband creation. “Man the Gardener” became “man the manipulator.” Thus he drew all of creation into his own world of death and corruption.
“And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our bodies.”
We too wait and groan within ourselves along with creation, as we anticipate the victory of God and the redemption of the material world. We wait for the “redemption of our bodies,” but we do not look for an eternal vocation apart from our bodies. The material world is not our enemy, nor is it a prison – it is our home. We sigh, we groan together because there is an oneness, a unity, and a sense of belonging – of being-at-home with the material creation that we know deep inside ourselves. This sense of oneness with the creature is sorely impaired, but the longing is profound and we have a revelation from God affirming the truth of that intuition. And so Paul gives us a vision of our destiny as children of God that includes the destiny of this earth – from whose own soil and substance the hand of God sculpted our bodies in the beginning. And from her gardens and rivers and steams, from bird and beast and reptile – a redeemed order will come together as a fit habitat for the children of God. And the Gardener, the Last Adam, will return to his Garden with his siblings in tow.
“… but we ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit… grown within ourselves awaiting the redemption of our bodies.”
We live between two chief moments in history that will culminate in a new earth filled with God’s own children. The first moment was Pentecost when the Father sent the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. The one-hundred-and-ten souls in the Upper Room were all born again as children of God and filled with the Holy Spirit that morning. That great action of the Father was personalized and effectually applied to your life when you were baptized. You were personally integrated into God’s plan of the ages at that moment. This is what Paul refers to as the “firstfruits of the Spirit,” the beginning of the harvest of which we are a part – we are folded into God’s corporate action that will culminate at the end of history.
“The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but we also… groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our bodies.”
The second great moment will be “the redemption of our bodies,” our resurrection and the deliverance of creation.
“… the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
The finality, God’s final cause for creation, is taking shape: creation will be eucharized, resurrected, and transformed, arrayed like a bride dressed up for her groom! The material world will be born again and burst into blossom as the redeemed children of God begin our reign upon earth. And we will all live forever.