Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Romans 8:12-25] Salvation changes us, makes us a new person. We don't have to go back to the way we were. And we can be a united church with all of the other Christians who have been changed into someone new.
The Spirit testifies together with our spirit that we are God's children. Romans 8:16
One of These Things Is Not Like the Others
Let me take a different approach to warming up our brains on this week's passage. You all remember the classic Sesame Street learning bit - "one of these things is not like the others". It teaches kids same/different. I haven't heard that song in 35 years and I remembered every word before watching this video clip. But then I thought about the words of the song. The next line is "one of these things just doesn't belong". They meant it from a simple categorization standpoint. But today, I think people would take this song to mean that "if you're different, you need to go away!" So, let's think about that.
Different vs. Out of Place
Is there anything wrong with being different? I should hope not! Paul talks at great length about how God has made His church strong by including people who are so different from one another--different skills and gifts and backgrounds and perspectives. Different is good! Our differences make us better together. Unity in diversity, as the saying goes. But I wonder if "out of place" should be in a separate category. Let's find out! Take a look at these pictures:
I love these kinds of pictures. I love the idea that animals (in particular) that we think of as very different could live together and "be friends" or even family. And I love being around people who are different from me. But does there ever come a point when different isn't good or helpful? I think so. But where and why? I think it's when you start getting influenced inappropriately by your surroundings. There's nothing wrong with a cat hanging out around dogs, but at the end of the day that cat is not a dog. If it starts acting like a dog, that could turn into a problem.
And that's going to be in the background of our passage this week. Paul wants to make it clear that even though we live in the same world (and even in the same body!), we're different than we used to be, and we're different from the people around us. We're not supposed to be the same as what we were or as what we're around. Diversity among God's people is encouraged, but we are supposed to be different from non-Christians. We're now "out of place" in the world.
Paul is going to use the beautiful image of adoption in our passage (lots more about that below). We used to be children of the world, but now we're God's children. And that means we don't have to go back to our old life.
There are plenty of stories that portray this trope. Often, they rightly take on stereotypes of people who are "lower class" than you (i.e. we're not better than anyone else). But some of them are helpful for our point. For example: once Cinderella became princess of all the land, do you think she should go back to being the wicked stepmother's slave-daughter? Of course not! That's the sort of difference Paul is talking about. "You're now a child of God. Why are you trying to go back to your old life and abuses? You don't have to. You've been freed!"
Download the study guide for this week's lesson!
Our Context in Romans
We took a week off to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, so let's get back into Romans mode. You'll remember that in our last lesson, Paul talked about freedom. He used three rhetorical questions to explain misunderstandings about our new life of grace: that God's grace was a license to live sinfully, that forcing God to forgive us magnified His mercy, and that God's law was pointless and should be ignored. No! Freedom in Christ is a very special kind of freedom--freedom to be righteous. Oftentimes that is awkward (Paul talked about his own struggles in chapter 7), and oftentimes that is at odds with the world around us. But Christ didn't die for our sin so that we would continue to live in it!
Eternal Future - Romans 8:12-13
So then, brothers and sisters, we are not obligated to the flesh to live according to the flesh, because if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Paul's author MO is to establish an incontrovertible truth and the draw an inarguable conclusion from it. I would say that 8:1-2 are the key verses to his argument: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. Imagine that you have to choose between two doors; one door is unlocked and leads to certain death; one door is locked but leads to certain life. And before you have to make that choice, the homeowner gives you the key to the locked door. Is that really a choice?
God doesn't want anyone to make that choice, and Paul wants us to make sure we understand God's love and purpose for us. Paul also speaks in love--calling us his brothers and sisters. The message is simple. Living according to the flesh leads to death (see 8:6). We don't have to live like that! My favorite illustration for this is a fish. Have you ever wanted to be a fish in one of those giant aquariums? It looks like they're flying. There's only one catch: you have to stay in the water. Is that a heavy price to pay? I would say no. So it is with us. We are free in Christ! But our freedom is so that we don't live according to the flesh (go back to chapter 1 to remember what it means to live according to the flesh). Here, Paul uses "flesh" in contrast to "Spirit": if "Spirit" represents living according to God's nature of love and peace and righteousness, then "flesh" represents living according to a nature of selfishness, destructiveness, and sin.
If you didn't watch this "Image of God" video the last time I posted it, watch it now. It captures the contrast between life as God created it and life as we have distorted it. (The video is also really helpful with the "groaning of creation" language Paul uses in a few verses.)
Here's the main point Paul makes in these verses: to live according to the Spirit, you have to let the Spirit put the flesh to death. You don't have the power to do it yourself. Note also that the verb tense Paul uses is present, which means that the action is ongoing. This is something that happens every day. And what is that something? Simple: choosing, in the power of the Spirit, not to make the sinful choice, but instead choosing to do the righteous thing. One choice at a time, one day at a time. When you get that desire to do something you know is wrong, you "put it to death" by both not acting on it and willfully pushing it aside. Those desires have no place in the life of a Christian. And we can--with the Spirit's help--shut them down in our life.
Eternal Inheritance - Romans 8:14-18
For all those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. Instead, you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs—heirs of God and coheirs with Christ—if indeed we suffer with him so 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 going to be revealed to us.
You might read those words and be a bit incredulous. After all, they sounds too good to be true, right? Use the power of God to defeat the evil inclinations in our heart? Sure, Jesus could do that, but He is the Son of God! Well, guess what? We are children of God too. Here's one of my favorite Charlie Brown Father's Day comics:
There are plenty of stories like that you could choose, about the access a child has to his/her father, no matter how famous or important. Because we are now children of God, we have access to God's power because He wants us to have it! What are the things people are afraid of?
Making a mistake so big it destroys us;
Saying something so wrong that it ruins relationships;
Writing a check with our mouth that's too big to cash;
Getting in so far over our head that there's no way out;
Finding out that we don't deserve to be forgiven or given another chance.
Those are all tools of the devil--tools that he uses to keep us enslaved to sin--tools of fear. Fear causes us to do all sorts of things we know we shouldn't do. Think about the COVID-19 epidemic. What has it caused people to do? Everything from hoard toilet paper to neglect the needs of others. Might we have done those things otherwise? Maybe. But fear drives us to do things that are selfish and short-sighted.
What is the opposite of fear? Some might say "bravery". I would say that our current emphasis actually has the better of it: "faith". "Faith not fear." To the secular world, that would be "confidence". But to Christians, faith means so much more. "Confidence" is still me-inspired. It's something that I can well up within myself to overcome my doubts. But faith isn't in myself at all--it's in the One object of fait: God Almighty. And in this case, God Almighty has chosen to sacrifice His only Son so that He could adopt us as Jesus' brother and sisters. Easter is the proof of God's love for us! Now, we approach God not in fear as condemned criminals, but in faith as beloved children. Much has been made of "abba" as a term of endearment, which it is, but it is not so familiar as to bring God down to our level, as if we could manipulate God as a child tries to manipulate an earthly father.
Adoption was very common in the Roman world. Augustus Caesar might be the most famous example of an adopted child. Adopted children had the full legal rights of a flesh-and-blood child, just like today. (I've asked Christy Tarver to lead this week's lesson, hoping that she will share a little about their experience with adoption.) There is an echo of this in the Old Testament, particularly in how God said He would make the Israelites His children (not using the language of adoption, but basically meaning the same thing). The idea in both settings was that a father taking someone who was not his child and choosing to bring that person fully into his family as a child.
As a consequence, we can think of ourselves as brothers and sisters of Christ. (Think "Family of God" by the Gaithers.) It's a great, great thing. But Paul isn't using that image to make us feel good. No, he's preparing us for the inevitable struggle of living righteously in an unrighteous world. During Holy Week, we talked about Jesus' words that if He suffered, His followers can also expect to suffer. Paul says the same thing here, except from a sibling perspective. Being a child of God brings power over the sinfulness in our hearts, but it also brings suffering at the hands of unrighteous people in the world. But that shouldn't bother us! The joy on the other side of our suffering is so much greater as to make our suffering seem insignificant.
One common image used in this context is childbirth (i.e. John 16:21). Childbirth, I've been told (many, many times), is extremely painful. And yet, I've not met a mom who doesn't love her child so much more than she hated the pain (no matter what she might threaten that child with). Following Jesus brings suffering. But God promises us it's worth it.
I think we can apply the same mentality to our current COVID-19 world. This is awful (and it really hasn't been that bad here in rural Georgia; my heart breaks for folks who have really been shut down by this). Things happens all over the world all the time that are awful. But not matter how bad they seem to be, they are nothing compared with the eternal joy of heaven: our hope is in the glory of God. Of all people, Christians should not let our circumstances break us.
Creation Restored - Romans 8:19-22
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 to decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now.
"Arise My Love", one of my favorite Easter songs which I posted last week, audaciously included the line that all of creation was waiting to hear God call Jesus from the grave, as if creation itself saw the resurrection of Jesus as the first step toward its own redemption. Well, that's right. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we finally have the proof that God's plan for eternity includes life, not death. Since the beginning, our world has been subject to the whims of humans. God intended that for good ("fill the earth and subdue it"), but in the fall it became war between us and the world we live in.
Once again, if you didn't watch the "Image of God" video above, please do. I think it makes this video of "Heaven and Earth" even more powerful. God did not intend the wonderful Earth to be a place of pain and suffering and destruction, but of joy and peace and communion with Him. To me, these words put things like earthquakes and tornados into context. Our world is decaying and dying; I get the sense that it is even sad when it is part of our suffering. But that is not the end goal--just a temporary consequence of sin. Another video the Bible Project put out, about the Temple, explains how God has always desired to "share space" with fallen humans. But there are safeguards that had to be put in place to protect us from His holiness. All of that will one day be done away with in the new heavens and earth. The decay in our current world will be done away with, and we will live with God in perfect communion forever. Sound good? Imagine how the world, which has had no say in any of this matter, feels? At least, that's the image Paul is trying to give us.
Let me make an interesting COVID-19 observation related to this idea. Look at these before-and-after images in places where human activity has been shut down:
I'll be honest: those pictures (the Italy one is after/before) are so stark as to seem doctored to some way. But in Beijing, they took 5 million cars off the road. That has to have some incredible impact. Indeed it has. Without intending to sound like an environmentalist, I don't think there can be any arguing that human activity has spoiled the world that we live in. Somewhat ironically, it seems that COVID-19 has found another way of telling us that.
Humanity Restored - Romans 8:23-25
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, but hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? Now if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience.
And Paul doesn't stop there! You see, not only does creation itself suffer from the scourge of sin, but deep down so does every human. Everyone knows that there's something catastrophically wrong with the world (this goes back to chapter 1), and when we receive the Spirit in salvation, we discover that what is wrong is us. Think about Paul's entire argument. Why is the world as it is? Because people have made choices that have brought us here. What has driven those choices? Selfishness driven by fear driven by fear of death, the easy tools of the devil. And so here we are. When we step back and see that big picture--that our sinful choices contribute to the suffering in our world (of our world), that we ourselves are broken and decaying and as a result even our best intentions can go awry. That can be so discouraging. Or--it can drive us to long for the day when that will no longer be the case. What did Paul just say? We are no longer slaves to fear! We must not be paralyzed by doubt in ourselves. We must live boldly in faith that the Spirit of God can overcome our weakness to bring about God's good purposes, and even (gasp) help us overcome the decay within ourselves! This is all one amazingly perfect argument. Thanks, Paul!
This truth is why Christian funerals aren't supposed to be depressing. Our current body is part of our problem (as I'm sure you don't have to be reminded). Physical death is simply the moment when that body finally gives out. But that's not the end! No! If you read 1 Corinthians 15 last week like we asked you to, you would be convinced that physical death is just another step toward eternal life. One day, when Jesus returns, we will all inherit a body that will never decay, that will never fail us. And it will live in a world that is no longer subject to decay or subjection. But we will finally experience life as God originally created it (before we ruined it). One of Paul's most famous lines is in 1 Corinthians 13: and now faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of these is love. What did he mean by that? It's quite simple: there is coming a day when we will see God face to face. And then, we will no longer have to have hope in God. It won't be "hope" any longer. But now, until that day comes, we have hope. And I think Paul gives us a great definition of hope: something we eagerly wait for with patience. I don't know what fears you have right now. I know we are all worried about the limitations of our bodies, our medical system, and our resources. And we should certainly be concerned about that, choosing to live wisely and shrewdly!
But I think that Paul would insist that we do not let our current circumstances distract us from the glory that emanates from God. We will get to inhabit that glory one day, and it will all make sense. Be strong. Be patient. And let the power of the Spirit kill off those sinful, doubting tendencies in your heart and mind. See you Sunday!