The future’s bright
We left this last time with the thought that we share in Christ’s sufferings and will also share in his glory. How does that look? It starts with three groans!
- Three groans
We sometimes talk about ‘people less fortunate than ourselves.’ There’s no doubt that there’s always someone worse off that you are, but in spite of this there is no doubt that life is not easy for anyone. When someone has had a bad day in Scotland you might hear the words ‘it’s a sair fecht’ – it’s a sore fight. Indeed it is, and more so for some than others. As Christians we’re by no means exempt from a hard life. I’m rather troubled when I hear some Christians talk as though everything for a believer is and should be all sweetness and light, not to say prosperous and happy – it’s not. Christians suffer, sometimes just because we are part of the creation that groans (more of that in a moment) but sometimes too because we are believers. Paul certainly had a tough life because of his faith. But here’s the thing, the present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us (verse 18)! That’s quite a statement; this glory will be revealed in us! (more on that in a moment too!).
Paul says that the whole of creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. It was subject to ‘frustration.’ This seems to refer back to the effect of Adam’s sin on this world. I watched a TV programme recently in which they talked about the fate of the earth. It was pretty depressing. The scientist believed that there was no long term future for the earth, the sun would expand and fry the place – now admittedly they think this will not be for some time (a couple of billion years), but all the same it’s not an encouraging future. How different reality is! God made the place, so shouldn’t he know what the future will bring? The prospects are good! Paul says ‘19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.’ That’s quite interesting, the fate of creation is dependent on the ‘children of God’ being revealed. What can that mean? We’ve also just read that the glory will be revealed in us (v 18) and that as believers we are co-heirs with Christ and God’s children (verse 17). The future of the creation is not dependent on the sun running out of fuel but rather it awaits us being revealed as God’s children! I remember once giving a talk at our company, perhaps there were 300 people in the audience and I mentioned that I was going to talk about apocalyptic drug development (if you’re wondering what that is, it’s a long story but it’s basically about unveiling drug attributes efficiently in the drug development process) – I explained that apocalypse meant ‘unveiling.’ Afterwards a chap I hardly knew approached me and asked if I was a Christian, he assumed that only a Christian would say such a thing: he knew the meaning of the book of Revelation. Now I had seen this guy in the office before, had talked to him once, but I didn’t know he was a believer. We can tell believers by the way they live (well often we can) – but sometimes not. Well there’s a day coming when there will be no doubt, Christians will be revealed! When would that be? Check out 1 Thessalonians 4: there’s a day coming when Jesus will return to this planet – as a matter of fact he will initially come to the air surrounding this planet. All believers whether dead or alive will be caught up to meet him ‘in the air.’ I think that’s when we’ll be revealed and this old broken world will be on the cusp of release from its frustration. Peter spoke of this very thing when he preached in Acts 3 (see Peter's sermon). The groaning creation will groan no more! When Peter talked about this he mentioned a restoration spoken of by the prophets. Take a look sometime in Isaiah and you will see the magnitude of this restoration which involves prosperity, security, good health, perfect rule and peace in the animal kingdom to name but a few of the restored features. The creation will go from frustration and decay to a flourishing and liberated state. The picture Paul uses of a creation groaning before God’s children are revealed, is a picture of labour and childbirth. This the sort of analogy Jesus used of the conditions on the earth prior to his coming. I do wonder if the intensity of the groaning will indeed increase prior to the day when Jesus comes and the creation is liberated. Of course the world will offer naturalistic explanations for these increasing groans but as believers we should see them in a different light – the day of release drawing near.
What about us? Just like the creation we groan too. We’re part of the created world so this should not surprise us. Paul says that we ‘we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.’ As believers we should not expect our faith to make life easy – we groan inwardly as we wait for the day of release. We have two distinct comforts as we groan. The first is an immediate comfort: we have the firstfruits of the Spirit. We have a greengage tree in our garden that yields wonderfully sweet fruit in late August. It’s a very pleasant thing to taste the sweetness of the first ripe greengage with the knowledge that there is a full crop to come (provided the wasps don’t get there first!). We are sealed with the Holy Spirit when we believe and are placed into Christ. The Holy Spirit is described by Paul as a deposit guaranteeing what is to come. He is the first taste of this restoration – and as a first fruit he is a constant reminder of what benefits are to come. The benefits are our adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies. The return of the Lord to the air will result in our sonship rights being fully granted and our bodies being changed for the better: from perishable to imperishable. The second comfort is that we have a hope. We sometimes use the word hope as a vague and uncertain future possibility, but that’s not the idea we have here, Paul says ‘24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.’ This hope is the substance of our salvation, that one day all will be repaired and renewed. We have the Holy Spirit as a down payment and we have the hope within us of this great future event and this brings us a confidence as we patiently wait for this to take place.
There is a third groan: The Holy Spirit groans within us. We are weak and don’t have the capability to know what to pray for, but the Holy Spirit intercedes for us through ‘wordless groans.’ Paul then says these interesting words: ‘27And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.’ What can all of this mean? First Paul says we are weak and ‘we do not know what we ought to pray for.’ I’ve often heard people when faced with a seemingly insurmountable situation or uncertainty, pray ‘Lord we don’t know what to pray for.’ That makes sense: we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and we don’t know how or what to pray for. I think if we knew all that lay before us we’d be unable to cope, but God knows and the Spirit within us knows. So what’s to do be done? The Spirit prays on our behalf: Paul says that he intercedes for us. But the subject matter of his prayers are ‘off limits’ (wordless groans) for us because we do not know what the future will hold or what is around the next corner. The Spirit thus prays prayers on our behalf that we could never pray because they concern things that we are not and cannot be party to. Finally Paul says ‘he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.’ The prayer signals go up from us through the Spirit and God actively searches for the prayers. What a remarkable mechanism!
2. God working for our good
At work when it’s clear that there are politics being played out we often observe that someone can get away with enforcing their will on people because they have a senior sponsor. A manager seems to be able to push through his ideas and plans with little or no resistance because he has the ear of one of the company directors – other capable people with possibly better ideas simply get nowhere because they don’t have a senior sponsor. Did you know that God is working for your good? We have the most senior sponsor you could imagine. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.’ That’s a pretty comprehensive statement. Not in some things, but in all things God works for the good of those who love him. We will come across a word in verse 29 that is translated ‘predestined.’ I’ve done a bit of reading around this word and it seems that the original word selected by the apostle Paul was more to do with foreordination than about setting a destiny. It seems to me that God has a path laid out before us that is the way he wants us to go. It’s a foreordained path. We’ve been out for nice long walks in the Lake District in past holidays and have set a foreordained path for us to take. But we don’t always follow the plan – usually because we take a wrong turning here or there – but with care we can get back to the original plan. Isn’t this just like us? God has a plan for us to take, it’s been pre-planned out for our good, but don’t we often deviate from the plan? We certainly do, but the plan remains and we have an obligation to get back onto the right path – why? because God works in all things for our good. Could this mean that God always works for us to have the easiest, richest, most prosperous perfect health sort of existence? No. Paul experienced a pretty harsh existence and yet he could say that God was working in all things for his good. Keep on the path, and even when we stray from the path God is still working for our good. Just as loving parents are always on the side of their children, so God continually works for our good too.
God works for the good of those who love him and who have been called according to his purpose. Later in Romans, Paul will make this statement ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ It seems that if you want to be saved you are the one who needs to do the calling, so what does it mean for God to call us? In this immediate context, God’s call seems to be a call to follow in God’s foreordained path. You have a calling! To follow in God’s foreordained path. There next follows a rather famous series of statements involving 5 linked words: Foreknew, predestined (or foreordained), called, justified and finally glorified. The order seems to be the chronology for God’s purpose for, and work in a believer. It starts with foreknowledge and it ends with glory. The first link in this chain of God’s purpose for the believer and it’s foreknowledge. Before we come to faith, God has foreseen it. Because he knows the future he knows how we will respond to the gospel. Loads of people have tripped themselves up on this, but if we just accept the word it makes perfect sense. There is no hidden meaning in this that says God decides beforehand that we will be Christians, it simply says that he knows. We must choose, it’s a matter of free will, but we will choose one way or another and God knows beforehand. Because he foreknows our response to the gospel he sets a plan for us – it’s a plan that is foreordained. So what’s the plan? To be like Jesus! That’s all it is. So what’s our response to this? Shouldn’t we with every ounce of capability we have, strive to see this plan put into effect? If you don’t find yourself responding to that question with a resounding yes, then your plans are different from God’s – you’ll find yourself off the foreordained path and in trouble. Next Paul says that those he foreknew and foreordained he called. Called to what? Paul doesn’t say but I think it’s obvious, called to live right lives for God, called to be like Jesus, called to serve him. Those he called, he also justified. We may not be perfect but as we’ve seen in previous chapters in Romans, when we put our faith in the Lord Jesus or legal status is that we are declared clear of sin, why? because we are no longer ‘in Adam’ we are ‘in Christ.’ Finally Paul says those he justified he also glorified. One day we will be caught up to be with the Lord in the air and we will be changed. The work will be complete and we will be glorified. CS Lewis once said that there are only two kinds of people in this world, those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says ‘Thy will be done.’ Whose will do you want to be done?
3. Our response
Paul has just laid before his readers the remarkable plan God has set out for us. Paul’s response is this: ‘If God be for us, who can be against us.’ If you’ve ever played a team sport you will know what it is to look to see is on your side, is our team filled with duffers like me? or are there some good players that will see our team through! As we contemplate our experiences in this life with all of the uncertainty, concerns, worries and difficulties we can have great assurance that God is not only with us but he is for us. If you have any doubts about this, just look at his track record, he did not spare his son for you and me – in view of this won’t he free of charge ‘give us all things.’ Yes, he will. God has already justified us and no one can or will condemn us. God is on our side. Jesus who died for us, was raised to life and now is seated at God’s right hand is rooting for us. Can anything spoil this, can anything undo this marvellous situation? One hundred times no: trouble? no, hardship? no, persecution? no, famine? no, nakedness? no, danger? no, sword? no. Even if we face death it cannot get in the way.
‘37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’