“For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Now in this hope we were saved, yet hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:19-25)
I believe every parent has stories and photos that their children cringe to hear or see. One of my joys as a parent and grandparent, with access to social media, is to post photos and tell stories about my kids and grandkids. Often, embarrassing stories. I’m certain they roll their eyes, duck their heads, mumble under their breath and then smile and say, “Yeah, that really is me. I’m not sure where he found that or why he posted it.” It is the privilege of parenting, old age and attitude. Do you have any of those kinds of stories or photos?
Some of my favorite stories are those surrounding the birth of our three children. Each was very unique in its own way and each birth resulted in stories that I continue to tell, to this very day. To be honest, it isn’t the children who cringe when I tell the birth stories… it is their mother, my lovely wife Tina, who cringes and rolls her eyes. Without revealing too much, let me simply say that in the midst of intense labor pain the woman has a pretty good right hook… right to my jaw. But the very nature of birth is that as the labor pains subside they are replaced with joy and love.
In our focal passage, Paul uses a labor pain and birth analogy to draw our attention to the promises of the Father. All of creation groans under the pain and stress of the birth of God’s Kingdom as He adopts us and reveals us as His sons to all of creation. Last week, we discussed whether the pain we would endure during this process would be worth it and, I think you would agree, it is well worth it. This week, I want to begin to focus more on the results of that process as we consider the firstfruits of God’s work in us through the Holy Spirit.
Apocalypse. It is a word that can strike fear into bravest of souls. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as: the complete final destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation or an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale. There have been countless books and movies based on this idea, and they all got it – well, wrong. Even the Oxford Dictionary, whom I respect greatly, got it wrong. The word apocalypse is a word that has simply been brought from the Greek directly into English and completely misunderstood. The Greek word – apokalypsin – is translated as “revealed” in verse 19 of our focal passage. The creation eagerly awaits with anticipation for God’s sons to be REVEALED – thus our word Revelation as the name of that last book of the Bible. The word apocalypse in Greek doesn’t mean destruction it means “to be unveiled or revealed” or to be clearly and plainly seen and understood.
So, how did a word that means to be revealed or seen and understood become a word that means complete and utter destruction in the English language? It seems to be based on our cultural concept and misunderstanding of what happens at this apocalypse or revealing of God’s sons and it really strikes at the heart of what it means to be a Christian who lives “according to the Spirit and not the flesh.” To help explain this idea, I’m going to try and carefully use that birth analogy that Paul references and that we briefly touched on, above.
One of the most controversial subjects in American culture hinges on the concept of what constitutes life and when it begins. Most Christians agree that life begins at conception and this drives us to oppose “at will” abortions. I use the term “at will” because of the human will and the choice of having an abortion and not the tragedy of a spontaneous abortion or miscarriage. Based on this belief, we see that the child in a mother’s womb is in the process of growing, maturing and developing to a stage at which it becomes safe and natural for the child to be physically born. When the child is born, it is revealed to rest of the world. Mom knew that baby was very much alive, kicking and moving and causing her bladder to occasionally cringe (at least, that’s what I’ve been told). We could see the evidence of life and Mom could feel and experience the evidence of life within her, but we could not physically see the child. At its birth, the baby that we knew existed was finally and fully revealed for all to see. The parents, grandparents and many others had waited with great anticipation for the birth of this beautiful baby – but the birth had not been without pain.
In a similar way, the sons of God are in the Spirit’s womb. We’ve been conceived. A new creation from the Father has been given life. We are alive. Growing. Developing. Maturing. Awaiting that time when all of God’s sons will be revealed. Paul even says that “all of creation has been groaning together with labor pains, until now.” As I mentioned last week, even our physical world groans and eagerly anticipates this birth or revealing of God’s sons. Why? Because when God REVEALS His sons, then all of creation will be redeemed and recreated into what God meant for it to be. Beautiful. Flawless. Good. Holy. Perfectly reflecting His glory. But even this birth doesn’t come without pain and that’s where our concept of apocalypse and its absolute destruction originates.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and corruption cannot inherit incorruption” (see 1 Cor. 15:50). So, for us to become the Sons of God and to inherit the Kingdom of God as His heirs, as Paul describes in our focal passage, we must go through this painful process of living and dying so that we can be resurrected (or born) with a new body – one that is not corruptible or subject to sin and death. For us to become what God intended, we must go through this process – a new life that is being formed in the womb of God’s Spirit. Growing. Maturing. Developing. Being prepared for this painful and traumatic event – the Apocalypse or Revelation – or revealing of God’s Sons and the New Heaven and New Earth.
There’s so much misunderstanding surrounding this Biblical concept and the Book of Revelation that I want to be very, very clear about this – we will NOT spend eternity sitting around on a cloud with wings as angels in heaven. You aren’t an angel, and neither am I. We are men and women created in the image of God. Loved by Him. Sought out by Him to be redeemed from our sin. If we will love Him, trust Him and the redeeming work He has done through Jesus then we will inherit the Kingdom of God as sons and He will reign over us in a new Heaven and a new Earth. That, my friends, is what all of creation is groaning about. That’s also what we are groaning about (we also groan, within ourselves) and that’s what we are eagerly anticipating.
However, I want you to notice that qualifying statement Paul uses – “we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits.” I alluded to this in the previous paragraph and it is this qualifier that causes so much cultural struggle with our Christian beliefs. I’m sure you are wondering what I meant by that statement, so let me elaborate. As I’ve stated in these posts before, modern culture views all men as “children of God.” But clearly, Paul indicates that only those who have the Holy Spirit belong to Christ and can be called sons of God. This is very clearly stated throughout the Book of Romans but especially in chapter eight (see 8:4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 16, 17).
But what does it mean to “have the Spirit as the firstfruits” of this relationship with Christ? The firstfruits are those items that are a part of the initial, or early harvest. They are the first few items harvested as the plants mature and begin to produce their fruit or crop. Remember above where I stated that we are still in the Spirit’s womb and we are growing, maturing and developing? You still are. You are still a long ways from being the Christ follower that He desires of you. You are still a long ways from being the mature, disciplined, obedient child that He has created you to be. Your Christian walk, your prayer life, your faith, your love and obedience are still in the early stages of development and what is currently being harvested from your walk with God are just the firstfruits, the initial blooms that are developing into full blown fruit.
If you are really honest with yourself, you know this and that’s why Paul says “we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Like I said, be honest. Haven’t you stopped and looked at yourself and your spiritual walk and thought, “Sheesh, what’s wrong with me? Why does this still bother me? Why do I still struggle with this issue? Surely, by now, I should be able to do better than that. Lord, please help me. I want to do better. I want to be more like you.” That’s the groaning he references. We eagerly wait. We anxiously anticipate the change that will come when our bodies are redeemed.
“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a HCSB)
Eagerly waiting. It’s hard to wait. Isn’t it? I can tell you, waiting for your adoption is really, really hard. For the past several years, I’ve volunteered as a CASA in the town where I live. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate and are volunteers who are Court Officers that have been trained and then appointed to serve as the advocate or voice of the children in a family court case. The CASA volunteer interviews, visits, investigates and studies the case in order to make a recommendation to the Court for what is in the child’s best interest. CASA volunteers train to be a voice for the children in the cases they are assigned. While I’ve not had an adoption case, I’ve worked with and listened to the other volunteers and children as their case works its way through the court system. There’s nothing quite like the look of a child who is anticipating his/her adoption and the joy is unmistakable on their faces when the judge makes the final proclamation regarding their adoption. They finally have their “forever home.” In that moment, their emotions change from hope to happiness, from eager expectation to contentment.
Paul says that we still hope because we have not yet realized the fulfillment of our hope – our adoption as sons of God and the redemption of our physical bodies. You no longer hope once it arrives, but we continue to hope. We still anticipate the completion of what He has begun.
“I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 HCSB)
At the birth of my children, I held them and thought about what the future held for them. I not only wondered, I prayed. The struggle for parents is that we have hopes and dreams for our kids, but those must always be secondary to God’s plan for our kids. If you are a Christian, God has begun a good work in you. He is at work to bring that work to a completion but not necessarily along the path you expected or to the completion you desired. Just like our dreams for our kids that must be secondary to God’s plans, our personal dreams and plans must be secondary to His plans. The process God takes us through is one of growth, development and maturity but it will never be completed in this life. For it to be completed, you must “put off mortality to put on immortality” or, as Paul says here, our adoption and the redemption of our bodies. (See also 1 Cor. 15:51-54) But just what is this “good work” that God has begun in us? I’ll see you next week, as we delve into that issue… have a blessed week.