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Sermon preached on Romans 8:18-25 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/11/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“The Revealing of the Sons of God”
Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. These are the opening teachings found in the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes paints a very real picture of life in this world. At many points it sounds like it borders on despair when considering how things work in this world. It acknowledges the shortness of life and the inescapable reality of death. It depicts the many sufferings of this life. It describes how things don’t always work as the way we think they should. For example, in this life, far too often the wicked thrive and prosper while the righteous struggle and suffer. Life is full of sorrows, even in the things that we think should bring us joy. Ecclesiastes says that “all is vanity,” a “grasping for the wind.”
When you read the book of Ecclesiastes, as bleak of a perspective on life as it may sound, it is something we can relate to. And it is something that we find expressed in brief, even here in this passage. This passage acknowledges that there is suffering in this life. Verse 20 says that the creation was subjected to futility; that word for futility can also be translated as vanity. It’s the same Greek word as what’s used in the Greek translation of Ecclesiastes. In other words, verse 20 acknowledges that this created world is one subjected to this state of vanity. Things don’t work the way that they should. There is a sense that something is wrong in this world. This passage says that the creation groans to escape this. It says that we as Christians groan to escape this.
And yet that is why this is such an encouraging passage. Paul tells us today that there is deliverance from this present age of suffering. It’s a deliverance that has ramifications to all of creation, but especially focuses around believers. This will be an exciting day. And so, in today’s message we will first consider the suffering of this present time. Second, we will consider the glory that is coming. Third, we will situate this all in terms of “hope.” We now live in the hope of this unseen yet future glory.
And so let’s begin with the suffering of this present time. We’ve already begun to paint the picture given here with the references to Ecclesiastes. It is also where we left off from last week’s passage. Verse 17 had contrasted our sufferings with Christ versus our future glory. Now, the passage expands further on those sufferings. Let’s begin then in verse 18. In verse 18 we see the time of this suffering. It’s the “present time” it says. Elsewhere in the New Testament we see the language of the present age versus the age to come. That’s what Paul is talking about here. The present time is the present age. It stands in contrast with the future age to come. That future age is when glory comes; we’ll talk about that next. But for now, we are in a time of suffering.
It seems best that we understand this suffering to refer to all the different kinds of sufferings we may face in this world. Verse 17 seemed to refer more specifically to the kind of suffering that we might face with Christ. In that sense, we would think first of Christian persecution. But given that verse 18 now puts the sufferings in the plural, it seems there are many kinds of sufferings in view here. Plus, the rest of the passage brings our attention to the larger creation and its own sorts of sufferings. That would make us think the sufferings in view in verse 18 are to be considered broadly. And so this would include Christian persecution, but would also include a broad gambit of sufferings. All the difficulties of this life. All the hard toil with limited payoff. All the times of hunger, or sickness, or disease. All the times of loss of a loved one, or a broken relationship. Poverty. Death. The list could go on and on. I know that this congregation knows sufferings of various kinds. Life is full of sufferings and sorrows.
And so if both the book of Ecclesiastes and us look around in this world and feel like something is not quite right, then we are correct. As I pointed to in verse 20, Paul says that the creation has been subjected to this futility or vanity. Verse 21 talks about the bondage of corruption that the creation is under currently. This creation seems to refer to the natural world around us, both animate and inanimate objects. This reference to creation, doesn’t include Christians, because this passage clearly distinguishes us from this reference to creation. This reference to creation must not include angels, because they have never been subjected to this kind of corruption. This reference must not refer to the devil or his demons, because they won’t experience the deliverance mentioned here. Thus, it must not refer to the non-elect humans either, for that same reason. And so this reference to creation must include what’s left. This natural world around us, full of so many material things, living and non living created things. Oceans and rocks, plants, and animals, even the stars up in the sky. All of this natural existence around us has been subjected to this vanity and corruption. This creation and its plight is personified here by Paul.
God, is of course, the one who has subjected the creation to this. We know that because verse 20 says that the one who subjected it, subjected it in hope. And so what’s surely being referenced here is what we find in Genesis chapter 3. There is recorded the fall of mankind. What we might have expected is God to immediately deliver death to mankind when he sinned in the Garden. But that did not happen. Instead, God leveled curses upon mankind. But these curses were not strictly laid on Adam and Eve. They had ramifications to the creation. Thorns and thistles, for example. Later in Scripture, we see other effects of our sin on the creation. In the Promised Land, for example, if the people disobeyed, then God threatened to send famine on the land.
William Shedd, a Presbyterian pastor in the 1800s, brings out the fitting relationship between mankind and his environment. When man was without sin, God gave him the paradise of Eden to live in. His environment fit his status. When man fell into sin, he was kicked out of the Garden, and creation was subjected to this vanity. When God called a holy people unto himself in the Old Testament, he moved them into the Promised Land. That was to be an environment that foreshadowed heaven. And so when the people of Israel lived in a holy way that was fitting to that Land, the land was for them a land of milk and honey and great blessing. But when they rebelled from God and acted like the heathen world, God made sure that the Land of blessing was for them then a land of cursing. In all this, God made sure that the environment for humans was fitting to their status. This, then, explains the state that we live in, even as Christians. We live in a sin cursed world. Thus, we, and the world we live in, face troubles, and sufferings, and this bondage of corruption. We do suffer. It is vanity of vanities.
And yet we mentioned that God subjected this creation in hope. The hope in this subjection is that since God didn’t immediately destroy Adam and Eve, there was hope for a deliverance from this cursed state. The hope of redemption. That is what Paul then points us to in this passage. It’s this future glory that comes after this time of suffering. I love how verse 18 starts off about this glory. It makes a comparison. A comparison between the present suffering and the future glory. The comparison is that there is no comparison! Verse 18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Imagine a scale. When two things are equal, they balance out. Paul says that it would be a mistake to think that’s how our suffering now versus our future glory works. The two are incomparable. John Murray said that our present sufferings will fade into insignificance comparatively. Think about it this way. Our present suffering is but for a moment. Even just reading the book of Ecclesiastes you get a sense at the shortness of life. And even in this life, it’s typically a mixture of some suffering and some pleasure. In this life, it says in Ecclesiastes that there is a season for all things, a time for this and a time for that. Times of sorrows and times of gladness. And yet, all, just for a time. That’s our present suffering. But our future glory will not just be for a time. It will be for eternity. Never ending. And it will not be a mixture of some good and some bad. It will only be the times of joy and goodness. No more bondage of corruption… forever.
And so this passage goes on to describe this future glory from several perspectives. First, notice how it explains it for the creation. Verse 21 puts it wonderfully. It says that the creation itself will be delivered from the bondage of corruption. Isn’t this wonderful? This world which has been subjected to futility and vanity, will be released. All the things that seem wrong about this world, will be fixed. When you read this, you should think of the New Heavens and the New Earth. Here we see that the current creation will give way to that new creation. Elsewhere, such as in 2 Peter 3, it is said that the current heavens and earth will be purged with fire. The result will be a creation set free from its current problems. As a side note, there is often a theological debate about this point. Will these new heavens and new earth result from a complete annihilation and then replacement of the existing ones? Or will the current creation be completely purged and transformed into something completely new? In words, will the creation be replaced or transformed. Romans 8 sounds like it’s saying that it will be transformed. Some have thought other passages suggest that it will be replaced. But at the end of the day, it’s a rather moot point. However it comes about, the corrupted creation that is now will be redeemed into what Scripture calls the New Heavens and the New Earth. Then, there will be no more tears, no more death, no more sorrow, no more crying, no more pain. All the former bad things will have passed away. All the vanity of vanities expressed in Ecclesiastes will be gone. It will be a glorious deliverance into eternal bliss.
A second way this glory is described is with regard to us, the Christians. In reference to Christians, two things are said about this future glory. One, is that this glory is a deliverance in terms of our bodies. This is verse 23. It says that we are eagerly waiting for the redemption of our bodies. I think there are at least two aspects to this. First, is the aspect of physical corruption. Our bodies break down. Our bodies get sick. Our bodies are subject to physical death. 1 Corinthians 15 talks about death being the final enemy. Even before death, our bodies are so often the source of so much of our sufferings. Health issues dominate prayer meetings for a reason. We can’t wait for our bodies to be delivered from these troubles. That is an important aspect of how our bodies will be delivered from this present suffering in our future glory.
Another important aspect in the redemption of our bodies is what we’ve been discussing the last few weeks in Romans. We’ve talked about the struggle with sin we have. In Romans 7:24 Paul asked who would deliver us from this body of death? There he was referring to this struggle that we have with our sinful natures. This too is a primary source of our sufferings in this life. It too is the source of so many of our sufferings in this life. The sinfulness of ourselves and others wreak havoc in our life. How much pain in relationships do you have because you or the other person sinned? How much troubles do you have with your finances, because you didn’t do something right? So many of our sufferings in this life can be directly related to either our own sins or the sins of someone else. But in glory, that will be done away with. We will have redeemed bodies. No longer will they be bodies of sin. They’ll be bodies of righteousness. Delivered, redeemed, bodies! Finally! At last!
A second way this glory is described with regards to us is in terms of our adoption as the children of God. We see this in several verses here. Verse 18 says that the future glory will be revealed in us. Verse 19 says that the creation eagerly awaits the revealing of the sons of God. Verse 21 says that when the creation is liberated from its corruption, it will be liberated into the liberty of the children of God. And verse 23 says that we are waiting for the adoption. Given that Scripture says that Christians are already adopted and that we are already children of God, we need to understand what this is getting at. Essentially, this is saying that when this future glory begins, this is the day when the sons of God are officially revealed. This is our official coming out party, you might say! This is when it will be heralded to all creation who are truly his redeemed people. Up until then, Christians have already experienced adoption. But it’s not always so clear who are truly his people. Of those alive today who profess Christ, not all of them are truly Christian. And some who are alive today, maybe have not become Christians yet, but will before it’s too late. This is not to mention that there are many people before who have become Christian, but we don’t know who they are. And there are likely future generations of Christians that will come after us, people whom we won’t know in this life. But you see at the day of glory, then the identity of all the Christians will be made manifest. That will be the day when the adopted sons of God will be gloriously revealed. This will essentially be a sort of party for us! All creation will find its liberty in and through the liberty we will find as the children of God. And then our adoption will be experienced in its fullness. For we will be fully conformed at that point to the only begotten son of God. We will think and act and live as our reality – as children of God!
This glory is restoration of all things. We will be freed from our corruption. And the creation will be free from its corruption. Again, there will be an environment suitable and fitting for us to live in. The New Heavens and the New Earth will be a fitting environment for the redeemed to live in! This is our future! To this, we have been saved!
And so then this leads us to our third and final point for today. To talk about all of this in terms of hope. That’s where we are at this point. Hope. Verse 20 said that it was in hope that this creation was subjected to futility. And it is in this hope that we were saved, verse 24. You see, this was God’s plan from the start. He could have just destroyed it all when Adam and Eve sinned. He could have put them to death and then just destroyed the world in turn. But he didn’t. He instead subjected the world to the vanity of the curse. And he began his divine rescue plan. That was a plan that promised a redeemer. Someone who could save a fallen people and a fallen world. Someone who could redeem a people unto God and deliver this world from its futility. To save such from final destruction. This was the plan God had through his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus was sent into this world to bring deliverance. By his death on the cross, he paid the price of sin. Now as we turn in faith to him, we are saved. We believe and thus we find deliverance.
But that of course means we are saved in hope, as we’ve said. In other words, though the Bible says that the Christian is immediately justified and adopted when he puts his faith in Jesus, we realize that our bodies are not delivered yet from their corruption. We see that the creation as well is not delivered from its corruption. That is why verses 24 and 25 talk about not yet seeing what we hope for. In other words, we are in the time of suffering now, even after becoming a Christian. We are promised the glory, but we don’t see it yet. It says that if we could see this already, then it wouldn’t be hope. And yet that’s what we have right now. This hope. But this is a biblical hope. In other words, it’s a sure and certain hope. It’s not a hope that might happen. It’s a hope that will happen, because the one who promises it is God. And God is faithful. This hope is certain. Glory will come.
I know this is the hard part. We so want to see it. In fact, we probably tell ourselves that we are okay with the wait, if we could only somehow see some tangible sign of the coming glory. Well, though God hasn’t given us something to see, he has given us a guarantee of it. It’s the Holy Spirit. This is what verse verse 23 is getting at when it says that we have the firstfruits of the Holy Spirit. The firstfruits is havest language. It’s the first of the harvest. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were supposed to sacrifice to God the firstfruits. They would give to God the very first part of the crop as a way to say thanks. Since we are in the harvest time of the year when we have our annual Thanksgiving, we can appreciate that. But here in verse 23, we see that direction is reversed. God has given us of the firstfruits. The firstfruits of the new creation. That firstfruits is the Holy Spirit himself. He is the deposit in our hearts of that glorious age to come. And so as we experience the Spirit in our life, we experience that glory in advance. Just like when we see the Spirit of adoption causing us to yearn for God in prayer, then we have tasted ahead of time the coming glory. Glory as the children of God. When we find ourselves understanding the Scriptures, and growing in faith, again, that is the Spirit at work. It’s a deposit of the glory to come already in our life.
But we don’t see it. But we hope for it. And that means right now we eagerly wait for it. Three times in this passage there is talk of eager waiting for this coming glory. The creation eagerly waits for glory in verse 19. Paul personifies creation’s waiting in verse 22 by describing it as groaning and laboring with birth pangs. That coming glory is like a new birth. A new world being born with newborn children of God to fill it. And Christians are also said to eagerly wait for this glory. Twice actually. Verses 23 and 25. That last reference adds the note of patience. We eagerly with patience.
Certainly we have had to learn patience in this life. All our life we are waiting for something. Waiting for something that we have yet to see realized in our life. So we wait. As a child you have to wait until you are old enough to do this or that, and it continues all your life. Old enough to drive, to vote, to rent a car without a surcharge. Old enough to be president. Old enough to qualify for medicare. Old enough to retire. It seems we are always waiting for something that we think will be better. And yet when we get through all those things, and look at our lives in this age, we realize at some point that we have less days in front of us than behind us. Then the vanity of this age looks so real. And it is then when we need to have this hope of glory all the more.
This is the hope to which we have been called, brothers and sisters. And it is not a fanciful hope. It’s not something told just to encourage the aged and the sick. It’s the revelation of Jesus Christ. He died and rose again and has gone ahead into this new resurrection life. He sits even now at the right hand of God the Father as one who already is experiencing this resurrection life. By his Spirit we have a foretaste. But for now it’s that unseen, yet future, hope. But it is certain.
And so then, may we have patience. May we eagerly wait. May we trust. But may we look forward to it as well. Today environmentalists will tell us how humans have messed up this world. Well, not from the sense they mean, but from the sense we’ve seen here, there is truth to that. Humans have messed up this world because of sin. We’ve messed up this world and our own lives. The solution is not carbon credits or to a plant a tree, though certainly it’s not bad to plant a tree. But what we need is the reality of this coming glory. We need this deliverance. And that is what we have. Trust in it. Believe in it. God has arranged for the most perfect dwelling place for you for eternity. Christ has gone away to prepare a place for you. And it will be so perfect.
An application that jumps out to me in all this is our many health trials. Our health will ultimately fail us in this life. And though we all know this happens to other people, when it starts happening to us, it can raise lots of spiritual questions. Often we wonder why God would have us to go through such sufferings. But this passage would remind us that this is part of this life. This is part of the groanings of this age. Our bodies are yet to be delivered. God may grant some relief of your bodies groanings in this age. He often does. But ultimately they will break down and die. The deliverance he ultimately promises for our bodies doesn’t begin in this present age. It begins in the future. That’s our hope. And so often we wrap up our spiritual well being with our physical well being. That if we are only cured physically here and now, then God has done me well. But that’s wanting our hope to be sight right now. God instead reminds us here – our bodies will break down and die. We will have sicknesses and diseases in this life. Some of them will be fatal. But none of them can rob us of what is our real hope.
And yet if all this is the case, doesn’t this help us to live right now even? We’ve seen today how God is concerned about our living environments. He places us in an environment that is fitting for each time and station of our life. Well, God still has us on this earth. And so that means he has a reason for us to still be here. Even in this age of suffering. Even in this time before glory. Even when bodies suffer physical decay. Surely he has a reason for us to be here hoping. Yes, the creation groans for its deliverance. But the birds and the bees still are doing their thing. The rains still come. The sun still rises. Isn’t that what patient waiting should look like for us then too? Let us be about the work of this world, even as we wait for glory. Let our patience mean we are productive citizens. Maybe we do go plant a tree. We do certainly work hard. We be the best humans, by God’s grace, that we can be. For we know who our real father is. And he’s the best Dad we could ever ask for. Praise be to Him. And let us be offering thanksgiving for both the good blessings in this age, and for those of the age to come. Amen.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.