Life in the Spirit: The Firstfruits of the Spirit

Sermon by David Strain on June 14

Romans 8:16-25

Well do please take your Bibles in hand and turn with me once again to Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8. You can also find it printed in the bulletin if you don’t have your Bible with you. Our focus will be on verses 17 through 25 today, although we’ll back up and read from the beginning of verse 16 just to make sure we get the sense of things. 

Last time, you may remember, we were thinking with Paul about the great doctrine of adoption. Verse 14 – “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” We’ve been adopted into the family of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and now we’ve received the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” And the result, Paul says, of that great transfer from the family of the world into the family of God, according to verse 17, is that now we are the “heirs of God and fellow heirs together with Christ.” And it’s just at this point in verse 17 that Paul introduces another new theme. First of all, he’d been working, we saw in the first part of chapter 8, with a contrast by which he has structured his teaching, a contrast between the flesh and the Spirit, as he talked to us about the nature of Christian sanctification – growing personal holiness. And then he introduced us last time to the theme, the image, of adoption into the family of God.

Now, in the second half of verse 17, he introduces a third theme, a new contrast. This time, the contrast between present suffering and future glory. Do you see that at the end of verse 17? “We are children of God,” he says, “and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Present suffering. Future glory. And our project this morning is simply to explore what Paul means when he talks about present suffering with Christ and future glory with Christ. One reason, I think, to love this systematic verse by verse exposition of the Scriptures is that from time to time there’s a sort of serendipitous connection between the text that we happen to be studying and the circumstances and needs in which we find ourselves in the moment, so that the passage becomes, as it were, a word from the Lord; a particular word from the Lord for our day. And I think that this is one of those passages which I hope to show you in due course. 

If you think about it with me for a moment, there are all sorts of things happening. Ed has been praying about them in the pastoral prayer. COVID-19 continues to trouble us in all sorts of ways; witness the scene around you just as Exhibit A – medically, socially, economically. Then, there was the recent murder of George Floyd, exposing yet again the open wounds of grief and alienation in the black community all around us and it’s left us asking huge questions about how we move forward together – “How can we find healing in our still deeply fragmented society?” There are riots on our streets, violence. Turn on the television screen; listen to the pundits for just a few minutes, regardless of your favored news outlet, and you’ll see that the political landscape is more divided and entrenched than ever. Go online and you run straight into the cancel culture where people are pursued and ridiculed and bullied on social media for failing to speak in the way and at the time that the self-appointed watchdogs of acceptable speech have determined that we must speak. So out there in the world, there are all sorts of trials and tribulations.

But then, in here as it were, among ourselves in this fellowship, we have plenty of suffering to go around. Don’t we? So much so that for some of us at least we feel we barely have the bandwidth to spare to think about anything going on anywhere else out there in the world. Several of you have lost loved ones recently, and in some cases the pain of that is made all the more acute because you’ve been unable to be with them in their last days because of the pandemic. Others of you have family, children, spouses who are sick, in some cases very sick indeed. You are fighting cancer, some of you. Some have Parkinson’s disease. Some are dealing with terrible autoimmune diseases, others with the black dog of depression haunting your steps. Not a few of you are isolated and lonely because amidst all your vulnerabilities it’s not been safe for you to conduct life as normal, so for months now you’ve largely been alone. 

Our passage today, Romans 8:17-25, is all about that. It’s all about suffering and finding hope. It’s about understanding the design of God in suffering, seeing beyond our suffering, and learning to wait in patience in the midst of suffering for the glory that is yet to be revealed in us. So this is a passage, in my judgment, that we really need in these days. There are tools here that we’ve got to learn to use as we try to make sense of the days in which we are presently living. And to help us get at Paul’s teaching, we’re going to think about suffering and glory under two broad headings. First of all, suffering and glory in union with Jesus Christ. Suffering and glory in union with Christ. And then secondly, suffering and glory in union with creation. Suffering and glory in union with Christ; suffering and glory in union with creation. And getting those two themes straight in our thinking, in our hearts, will, as Paul intends in verse 25, lead us straight to hope; straight back to hope in the midst of suffering. Isn’t hope one of the things we need now more than ever? Hope. Suffering and glory in union with Christ, suffering and glory in union with creation, resulting in enduring, unshakeable hope. 

Before we get into all of that, let’s pray once again and ask for the Lord to help us and then we’ll read the Scriptures together. Let us pray.

O God, open our eyes, please. Open our hearts. Open our ears. May our lives be opened to your leading, directing, correcting, training, rebuking. We want to be more like Jesus. We want to be hope-filled people with our eyes fixed on Your promises. We confess that they are often, our hearts are often filled with anxiety, fear, despair, doubt, unbelief. So come, by Your Word and Spirit now, and deal with us for Your honor and glory, in Jesus’ name, amen.

Romans 8 at the sixteenth verse. This is the Word of God:

“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.

Suffering and Glory in Union with Christ 

Well this passage made me think about railways and trains. I have to be careful using a railroad illustration around here because there’s nobody more knowledgeable, there’s no more devoted train “nut” than our own Brister Ware who will quickly correct me if I get this wrong! Okay, so the train is not the same thing as the engine. I usually just call the whole thing a train; apparently that’s not correct. The engine pulls the train and the train is made up of a series of linked carriages. So if you just see an engine on its own it’s not a train. I wish Brister were here. No doubt, I’ll hear from Brister whether I got that right one way or another! I think that’s right! The train is pulled into its destination by the engine. Where the engine goes, the train necessarily follows. 

Now here’s what made me think about that in the passage. The basic pattern of Paul’s argument is this – Jesus suffered and was glorified; Christians are united to Him, and so they too will suffer and be glorified. And more than that – there are more carriages in the train than that – not only will that pattern prevail for us, it will prevail for the whole cosmos, for the whole created order as well, so that creation itself, like the last carriage in the train being pulled into the station, will participate in the coming glory that will be given to us. Christ is the engine, as it were, and we follow Him, and then the whole of creation follows behind us in His train. And that’s the pattern.

And if you look at verse 17 you’ll see the first part of that argument. Here is suffering and glory in union with Christ. “We are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” What is the great distinguishing mark of the child of God who is a fellow heir together with Christ? It is that they are united to Christ in His suffering and will be united with Him in His glory. Now, it would be tempting to run ahead a little and to focus primarily on what we learn here about ourselves. And we’re going to do that in a few moments. But I want you to notice first how Paul characterizes Christ’s earthly ministry as a ministry of suffering. Our suffering is suffering with Him in His suffering. He is the principle sufferer, and we are united to Him in His suffering.

And that’s certainly how the Scriptures describe the earthly ministry of our Lord. Isn’t it? He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Foxes had holes and birds had nests, but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head. He was a prophet without honor in His own hometown. He came to His own and His own did not receive Him. He was despised and rejected by men. We esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. He learned obedience by the things that He suffered. It pleased the Lord to crush Him. The chastisement that has brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. His earthly life was a life of suffering. Now to be sure, His sufferings are unique in this important respect – His sufferings were atoning sufferings. They paid the penalty for our sin. They won pardon and new life for believing sinners. Only the suffering of the sinless God-Man could secure salvation for us. Our sufferings have no such power. His sufferings surpass anything we can ever imagine or comprehend. He bore not only emotional trauma and physical pain; He bore the horror of the wrath and curse of God due our sin in His body and soul upon the cross. Here He is, the suffering substitute for sinners.

But then His earthly humiliation and sufferings have now given way, haven’t they, to heavenly exaltation. He is the firstborn from among the dead, the risen Lord, ascended on high. He has defeated sin and Satan, death and hell. He sits now, right now, on the throne of glory with the name above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. He is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high and there He presides over all things until the Father makes His enemies a footstool for His feet. He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah who is worthy to take the scroll and open its seals and cause the purposes of God to be fulfilled in the world. He is the Lamb, looking as though He had been slain, standing in the midst of His throne. He is the Son of Man, walking on among the lampstands, present in the midst of His Church. The suffering Man of Calvary, right now, is the exalted, reigning Lord of glory and we all owe Him our love and our praise and our adoration and our obedience forever.

And that pattern – that’s the pattern – suffering, then glory – Paul says in verse 17 becomes the paradigm, the trajectory for all of His people after Him. Notice the phrase in verse 17, “with Him.” “We suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” There is a union between believers and Jesus Christ and that means that the same pattern of suffering then glory that we see in Jesus will always necessarily be mirrored, so some extent at least, in the life of every single Christian. He is the engine; we are the carriages in His train. Where He goes, the landscape through which He must necessarily pass, is the same landscape through which He leads us – suffering on the way to glory.

And in verse 18, that truth, notice, that truth allows Paul to draw a vital conclusion. Look at verse 18 and notice the phrase, “I consider.” The Greek word there is “logizomai.” We get words like “logic” and “logically” from it. So he’s drawing a deduction, a conclusion, from that fact; that great doctrinal principle about our union with Christ in suffering and eventually in glory. He’s making some conclusions. He’s showing us how to think, how to reason, with regard to our present sufferings. When the weight of present suffering presses in and grief overtakes you and things are hard, Paul is saying to us in verse 18, in effect, “Make sure you get your measurements right.” Isn’t that what he’s saying in verse 18? “Get your measurements right.” He’s inviting us to join him in the basic calculus that he has engaged in. “I consider, I’ve done the math, I’ve weighed my suffering in the scale against the glory that is to follow, and I know which is the weightier.” That’s what he’s saying. Suffering may weigh on us a very great deal here, and you feel borne down, buckling under its enormous weight. 

But however oppressive and overwhelming it may be now, the weight of coming glory is greater by far. Paul is teaching us we must not let this life weigh more than the life to come; matter more, be more important to us than the life to come. That’s the key. Don’t let tears of pain or loss here count more, mean more, weigh more than the promise of tears of joy hereafter. Your union with Christ is more real, more precious, more weighty, more worth your time and your attention and your meditation and your reflection than any other factor in your life or experience, including your sorrows and your suffering. “I consider that the suffering of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Suffering and glory in union with Christ – it changes your whole perspective. If He has had to travel through these dark valleys of suffering and pain and has then entered His glory, I may know for sure, however dark the valley may be right now, He will lead me out into glory yet to come so that the present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that lies ahead for me. That’s what Paul wants you to say. Suffering and glory in union with Christ.

Suffering and Glory in Union with Creation

And it’s fundamental to everything else he’s going to tell us as we think now in verses 19 through 22 about suffering and glory in union with creation. Look at verses 19 through 22. Notice first of all how Paul describes the state or condition of the present created order, the physical world in the age in which we currently live. So in verse 18 he speaks about creation as though it were a person. It is personified; it “waits,” he says, “with eager longing” for a destiny to come. The word translated “eager longing” is a fun word. It implies standing on tip-toes, craning your neck; straining, staring ahead to see what is coming with great anticipation. That’s what the creation, Paul says, is currently doing. It can’t wait. It’s longing for what is yet to come. 

And then in verse 22, notice he changes the metaphor and speaks of creation this time like a mother in birth pains, groaning. Why is creation standing on tiptoes, peering into the future with such eagerness? Why is creation groaning in birth pains and labor pains like this? Verse 20, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope.” Now stop there for a moment. God has subjected creation to futility, Paul says. One scholar says the word translated “futility” here means, “the ineffectiveness of that which does not attain its goal.” Futility. Creation’s destiny has been thwarted. It’s not doing what it was intended to do. It’s talking about the curse of God. Remember Genesis chapter 3 in the wake of the sin of our first parents. God cursed the ground so that it would bring forth thorns and thistles and it condemned our first parents and all of us ever since to futility, to laboring in the sweat of our brow, to bring forth fruit from the ground. Bodies get sick now. Death is real now. Suffering is a universal now, woven into the fabric of creation. 

But God did this, Paul says in verse 23, “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption.” That’s an interesting phrase. Doesn’t that aptly sum up life in our world right now? “Bondage to corruption” – that’s what you see on the streets on our TV screens. There are viruses and tropical storms and there are murder hornets and there’s violent crime and on and on and on the list goes. What is all of that? It’s bondage to corruption. No wonder, Paul says, creation groans. It’s longing for an end to it all, and it’s not just creation that’s groaning. Is it? Verse 23, “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for the adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” We are groaning too, aren’t we? It’s hard. We’re tired. We’ve had enough. “When is it going to end? How long, O Lord?” Right? We’re groaning. 

Enduring, Unshakeable Hope

But there is hope. Do you notice the hope mentioned in verse 20? This is fascinating to me. The hope mentioned in verse 20 – where is that hope to be found? In whose heart is hope beating in verse 20? It is hope in the heart of God, in the heart of the One who subjected creation to the curse. He cursed creation in hope that the bondage to corruption that we’re all experiencing right now, the groaning we all endure, will one day be undone. He cursed creation in the confidence that His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head, that He would come and death would be destroyed in His glorious resurrection and the curse would be removed. What’s so beautiful to me in this is that this hope for which God was confidently looking, all the way back there in Genesis 3, this hope that creation is groaning and longing for – listen to this – is anthropocentric. That is to say, it is shaped by our destiny. It’s shaped by our destiny.

Let me explain what I mean. Back in verse 18, Paul spoke about the glory that is “to be revealed to us.” Do you see that language back in verse 18? That’s really a poor translation. The Greek actually speaks about the glory that is to be revealed “in us.” The locus of the revelation of glory to come, the focal point of what God will do when He undoes the curse, is centered on believers in Jesus. That’s why in verse 19 “creation is waiting with eager longing” – for what? What is creation longing for in verse 19? Look at the text. It is not the revealing of its future destiny, merely. That’s not what it’s longing for according to Paul. What does he say creation is longing for? It is longing for “the revealing of the sons of God.” Or look at verse 21. When creation at last is set free from its bondage to corruption, what is the nature of the freedom that is bestowed upon creation itself? It is “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

Here’s the point. I think it’s astonishing. We will be glorified with Christ if we are believers to mirror His glory in our own resurrected bodies, and then God will make the entire fabric of creation to accommodate and reflect and fit our new, glorified selves. The curse that followed our sin, you know, it has resulted in alienation, hasn’t it, from our world, our environment. The masks that are making your face so hot right now, that’s what that’s talking about! Right? We don’t seem to fit so easily in our world anymore. That’s what sin has done. It’s resulted in bodies that don’t work, in disability, in any number of medical conditions that make us fragile so that our natural environments are a risk to our health. The curse has resulted in dislocation. Our world no longer fits us as it should. One day, God is going to make us new. Our bodies will be redeemed. The spiritual adoption we celebrated last week in verses 14 through 17 will be consummated, Paul says, in the adoption, the redemption of our bodies. That is our future.

But having then glorified us, the Lord will remake all things to fit us perfectly at long last. Creation will be swept up into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Creation will participate in our freedom and our glory, not the other way around, you see. We will participate in the glory of Christ and mountains and streams and clouds and trees and rocks and clothes and songs and cities and whatever else the new creation involves, all of that will participate in our glory. 

That means, for example, your disabled child, made in the image of God, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, that the world does not fit right now, that people don’t get, that bring such joy to your heart and yet honestly is also such a cause for worry as you think about your child’s future. Your child, the text is saying, has a glorious destiny in Jesus Christ. It’s not that God is going to remake that child so that whereas now they do not fit, then at last they will be made to fit; it’s not that God is going to conform your child to the creation pattern at last. That’s not our hope. Rather, God is going to glorify your child so that they are like Jesus and then He’s going to make everything else in the creation pattern fit them, accommodate them, correspond to them perfectly. They will be the norm according to which the whole universe is remade. 

One day, undiagnosed illness will be impossible because illness will be impossible. One day, there will be no more tornado sirens, no floods, no droughts. There will be no police, no fire service, no ambulance in the new creation. There will be no chemo in the new creation; no pacemakers, no bandaids, no broken bones, no face masks in the new creation. One day, we will be made like Jesus in resurrection majesty, and then everything else, everything else will be brought into share that majesty, mirror and reflect that beauty. The fabric of creation itself will be made to share in the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Jesus is the engine pulling the train into the station. We are joined to Him like carriages in the train, and so His glory will certainly one day be our glory. And on that day the cosmos itself, like the last carriage in the train, will be drawn into that glory too. 

“And in this hope,” Paul says, verse 24, “we were saved.” This is the aim and the design of this salvation Jesus has provided. Paul wants us to fix our eyes upon it. He wants us to long for that glory and not let CNN and FOX News and Facebook and your Twitter feed consume you. Honestly, it’s forms of media – haven’t you found them to be particularly adept at shattering your hope, at crushing your spirit, at making us estimate our present sufferings far too highly so that they almost blot out every other consideration? Paul says, “Remember, in this hope we were saved. This is your destiny – the freedom of the glory of the children of God exalted together with Christ. Don’t forget it. Don’t let it be an ‘Oh yes, and also,’ after you’ve obsessed in anxiety about all our various present trials.” Certainly it is an unseen hope right now, isn’t it? 

But look at verse 25. “Hope that is seen is not hope. Who hopes for what he sees?” What we see right now does not fill us with much hope, does it? Well then, “hope for what you do not see.” That’s Paul’s counsel, and then begin to “wait for it with patience.” It is certainly coming. To be clear, “patience” there doesn’t mean passivity or inactivity. It doesn’t mean Christians ought not to work for justice and peace. It does not mean Christians shouldn’t care enough to do what we can to alleviate suffering wherever we find it. We should. We must. It does mean, however, that we are realistic about suffering and trials. We are not surprised by natural disasters, by pandemics, or economic decline, or political upheaval. We still groan, we still wait eagerly with longing for the day when sickness and pain are done and peace and wholeness reign, for sure, but we’re not really surprised when they rear their ugly heads here. Instead, Paul says, when this hope has a hold of your heart, what happens? You wait and you work and you worship. You pray and you preach and you persevere, longing for the great day with new patience, new patience. Because we have a hope, you see, now. It can’t be touched by anything happening in our circumstances. It transcends it all. 

Suffering and glory in union with Jesus Christ and in union with the created order. Learn to see the glory to come so that you can persevere; you can persevere through the sufferings we must now endure until the day breaks and the shadows flee away and we are at least glorified with Christ. May God help us to fix our eyes on the glory promised and wait with patience amidst suffering here. Let’s pray together.

Father, thank You for the Lord Jesus Christ, our forerunner who has passed through the landscape of suffering and arrived already at the great terminus of glory to come and He leads us there. We are united to Him so that we too must pass through the same terrain. Help us as we pass through the valleys and the sufferings and the trials of this life not to lose sight of the glory of our destination. Instead, in this hope, O Lord, give us grace to wait with patience, to worship and work and weep and rejoice and pray and preach and persevere until the shadows flee away. Hear our cries and help us, even in the midst of our groanings and longings. Even so, come Lord Jesus. That’s our prayer. Hear us, for we ask it in Your name, amen.

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