Title: Groaning in Hope
Text: Romans 8:18–25
Series: God’s Glorious Gospel – The Righteousness God Requires
November 13, 2016
Ryan David Shelton
I remember looking through the little glass window on the top of Alex’s coffin in disbelief. A week ago, we were leading worship together and quoting goofy lines from our favorite movie. There he was, in a wooden box, and we lowered him into the ground. Twenty-two years old. He was sweeping the floor in the church hall as we were cleaning up for our last free day in Ireland, and he dropped to the floor and never woke up again. The doctor said he was with Jesus before he touched the floor.
Someone said something to me that day, standing by Alex’s coffin that bothered me. They said, what you see in the coffin is not Alex, it’s just his body, and he has left that body behind for something better. It bothered me because it was only half true. Alex is with Jesus, and right now his body is in the ground just outside of Minneapolis. But I trust that many of us have had this experience, that there is something deeply troubling watching a friend’s or a family member’s body get lowered into the ground. Something is very, very wrong. And it is not supposed to be this way. That body belongs to Alex, and he will get it back, with interest.
I worry that sometimes we try to be more spiritual than God; that we try to comfort ourselves in ways that God never intended for us to be comforted. The tearing apart of body and soul should never be a comfort, not even for the Christian, because that is not God’s design. Things in this world are broken, and the church should be the safest place in the world to say, “This is not okay.” Lament is the property of God’s people.
Think about it, the naturalist has no right to be mad at the suffering in this world. If this is all one big happy accident, we should be infinitely thankful that the galactic soup stirred in such a way that you get to have lungs that function even some of the time. How can the naturalist, who knows know creator, complain when children are born without eyes, or an earthquake destroys a village? But we all know there is something wrong, and even those who reject God have the echo of Eden stamped on their heart. Their anger is borrowed capital. It doesn’t belong to them, but sometimes they feel it:
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Question: How should spirit-filled Christians live in the midst of a sin-broken creation?
Paul begins this paragraph with a thesis statement that might seem—at a surface level—ludicrous. Look with me at verse 18:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Let the full weight of that sentence sink in. Who can say such a thing? Think about all that is included in the phrase “the sufferings of this present time.” Persecution. Hungry children. Beheadings. Thirst. Multiple myeloma. Forgotten birthdays. Aging. Anxiety attacks. Betrayal. Stubbed toes. Miscarriages. Human trafficking. Hearing loss.
Paul says, you can put all those things on one side of the scale, and they won’t even register. They are not worthy of comparison to what is coming. Which means one of two things: either (1) they are not really that bad, or (2) what is coming is that good. Which one do you think it is going to be?
Well, with God’s help, we are going to try to see what Paul knew that allowed him to make such a bold claim. In the following verses, we climb deeper into Paul’s Spirit-inspired reasoning that stands underneath his conclusion. You see that with all of these little words “for” at the beginning of these verses. You can substitute “because” for most of those. So we’re going to go in reverse order and climb our way back up to verse 18. And maybe when we arrive again at this dramatic statement, we’ll know what gave Paul the audacity to say such a thing.
Outline: We’ll look first at the Groan of Heirs in verses 23–26, and then, second, climb up to the Groan of Creation in verses 19–22. Then finally, we will resurface again with the Groan of Glory, verse 18. Let’s begin at the bottom of the ladder, with point 1.
I. The groan of the heirs (8:23–26)
We have been saying that this is the chapter of the Holy Spirit, and last week Pastor Keith showed us that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a spirit of adoption. He writes in v. 16, The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs. It is popular to say that we are all God’s children because we are all humans, but that is not what Scripture teaches. Without the Holy Spirit, in our flesh, the Bible tells us that we are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Jesus told the Jews who were rejecting his authority, “If God were your Father, you would love me… You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:42, 44). The ability to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” is a privilege and a gift, not an inherent right. In our sin, ever since the fall, we chose to trade our sonship for slavery, our daughterhood for destitution. But in Christ, we have been adopted as children.
So as adopted heirs who have the Holy Spirit, what kind of attitude ought we to have in this broken world? You might expect Paul to say that we should slap a smile on our face because of the great promises we have. But look closely at v. 23:
We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Notice, first, who Paul is talking about here. Who is doing the groaning? Paul is emphatic on this point, We ourselves, the ones who have the Spirit groan. In the original language he uses a whole host of grammatically unnecessary words to hammer this point home. We, even we, the very ones who have the Spirit, yes, we are the ones who groan. Paul is shouting at us: groaning over brokenness does not disqualify you from the Christian walk. Rather, it is evidence you have the Spirit. Those who have the Spirit groan.
Second, notice that Paul says we have the firstfruits of the Spirit. This is an important biblical word. The firstfruits are the deposit, the guarantee, the part of the crop the farmer would bring to his clients to show them, “This is what my barley is going to look like this year. How much do you want to buy?” Which means we don’t have the fullness of the Spirit like we will have him forever. The best is yet to come, Christian. You really do have the Spirit of God, but part of this groaning is a longing for a fuller, deeper communion with God through His Spirit.
Paul uses the word inwardly: we grown inwardly. Does that mean we always keep our groaning to ourselves? I don’t think so. Paul has been using this inner/outer language already in the letter. Remember chapter 7: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war.” It seems that when Paul says we groan inwardly, he is not making a statement about the location of our groaning, but the source or spring from which it comes. This kind of groaning, this eager expectation for resurrection, is the result of the transformation within by the Holy Spirit. This becomes even more explicit in verse 26, which says the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. So if you needed any more proof that this groaning is different than sinful complaining, look no further. The Holy Spirit groans, and he is God.
Third, notice what we are groaning for: adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Your spiritual adoption has a physical promise. The new creation Spirit that is just beginning to take residence in you was not designed to exist forever in a corruptible, curse-riddled dirt-clod. This decaying flesh-bag does not have the capacities for the fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore that you can now only begin to taste and imagine with your Spirit-awakened sensibilities. The new wine that one day God will pour without measure needs a new wineskin that won’t burst. And right now even your own body puts up a fight against your inner man. You try to pray, but you get sleepy. You try to subdue your passions, but your appetites seem uncontrollable. You try to love and serve your neighbor, but your strength gives out. There is a divide between the new creation that is already yours in part, and the expectation of a new creation body that will soon be yours in full.
The best illustration I have ever come across of this principle comes from C. S. Lewis’ book Miracles. Lewis puts his finger on something profound: Jesus kept his physical body, and one day we will get a glorified body like his:
[Christians], of all men, must not conceive spiritual joy and worth as things that need to be rescued or tenderly protected from time and place and matter and the senses. [Our] God is the God of corn and oil and wine. He is the glad Creator. He has become Himself incarnate.… These small and perishable bodies we now have were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. We must learn to manage: not that we may some day be free of horses altogether but that some day we may ride bare-back, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged, shining and world-shaking horses which perhaps even now expect us with impatience, pawing and snorting in the King’s stables. Not that the gallop would be of any value unless it were a gallop with the King; but how else—since He has retained His own charger—should we accompany Him?
Jesus has retained his own charger. He kept his body. And these bodies that you and I presently have will soon go into the ground, while our spirit goes to be with Jesus and wait for resurrection. But even right now, there are saints around the throne saying, “How long, Jesus?” Yes, it is true; being with Jesus is better than living with the curse of sin, but not even sinless saints are perfectly content with their incomplete redemption. Heaven is not the end of the story, it’s the intermission. One day, a trumpet will blast, and your body will be transformed so that you can sit down a table with Jesus and eat meat and drink wine at his wedding feast.
What does this mean for you, Christian? How can you distinguish the groaning that is Spirit-produced as you wait eagerly for your resurrection body from plain old grumbling and complaining? Paul gives us our application right in the text, verses 24-25:
For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is not 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.
Spirit-induced groaning for redemption looks different than the grumbling of the world because it fixes its gaze on an unseen hope of glory. The world knows how to grumble. Grumbling keeps your eyes on the ground and complains about the aching back, complains about the sagging skin, complains about the sleepless nights. The grumbler is the Eeyore who mumbles, “Woe is me. Everything is terrible.”
But the groaning of the Christian is altogether different, because our eyes are fixed on a hope that the world knows nothing about. We hope for what we do not see, and so we wait for it. Here is what that does not mean, friends: that does not mean we make peace with cancer. That does not mean we slap on a goofy grin and pretend that our broken body is A-Okay! We are not fools; we are hoping in a resurrection. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that if there were no resurrection, we would be the biggest fools in the world! We do not shake hands with death and decay like it is our pal. Jesus is coming back, and Revelation 20 tells us he is going to throw Death into the lake of fire.
Let us be a people who lead the way in being vocal about our animosity toward death and all its manifestations. We are not “okay” with disease and decay. We have the promise of full and complete health in resurrection bodies in the age to come. So when the cancer comes, we should pray, “God, I hate this. This isn’t the way it is supposed to be.” And we fixate on the hope that it will not always be this way.
You are promised a cancer-free, glorious body. So we can, and we should(!) ask God if he can usher in some of those promises early. It’s like when I was a kid and all the presents were wrapped and under the tree, and we would ask Mom and Dad if we could open one of them early on Christmas Eve. If they said no, it was okay! Christmas morning is coming! But sometimes in their kindness, they would let us unwrap a present the night before. That’s what praying for healing is all about. God has promised you healing, Christian. And he will certainly deliver-in-full on that promise on the day of our resurrection. But while we wait for that day with patience, we groan with the Spirit, and we ask for it to come. Perhaps God will give us a foretaste of resurrection right now. He’s already signed the check!
But now we are going to climb back up the ladder one rung higher. This promise of our resurrected, glorified bodies, has implications far beyond you or me. That brings us to point 2.
II. The Groan of Creation (8:19-23)
Paul shows us a staggering correlation between our redemption and the rest of creation. Look at verse 19:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
Who are the sons of God Paul is referring to here? That’s us, by the adoption of the Holy Spirit. We have seen that already in verse 16, “we are children of God” because of verse 15, “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons.” That is true of you, right now, Christian. Paul says you have received it. But remember what we saw in verse 23; we don’t have the fullness of it, but only the firstfruits. The reality of our adoption has not been made visible to the world, because for now it is true in our inner man, but not reflected in our outer bodies. John says something very similar in 1 John 3:2,
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him.
This is what Paul means when he says creation is waiting for the revealing of the sons of God. It’s like these gender reveal parties that so many expecting parents seem to be throwing these days. Inside the envelope, or the cake, or the box, or whatever it is they’re doing the hiding with, there is something pink or blue inside, waiting to be revealed to the world. That’s like our status as God’s children. Our adoption is not less true simply because it is not yet public, but it is hidden.
But why does creation care so much about this big reveal? Look at verse 20–21,
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.
Paul brings us all the way back to Genesis 2 & 3 and reminds us of the global consequences of our sin as the kings and queens of creation. After God had made everything else, he fashioned the man out of the dust of the ground and breathed life into him. Adam is made from the stuff of this creation, and he and his wife were told to reign and rule over it, to work and keep the garden and fill the earth with images of God. But when the man and the woman sinned, they died a spiritual death, because God had told the man, “in the day that you eat of the tree of the knowledge of god and evil you shall surely die.” And when the king and queen of creation rebelled against the Creator, God cursed the ground from which man came, and to which man would return.
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
And have eaten of the tree
Of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
Cursed is the ground because of you;
In pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
And you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
You shall eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
For out if it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.
God subjected creation to futility because of the sin of King Adam. “Cursed is the ground because of you.” Oh, friends, hear this warning: our sin is never our own private affair. Our rebellion destroys all that we are given custody over, and to be a human created in the image of God is to be given custody of much.
But just like the first Adam’s sin brought curse and futility to all creation, the Greater Adam’s obedience will bring to creation, restoration and freedom. When the Spiritual reality of our glorious adoption is revealed as these clods of clay are transformed into New Creation glory-bodies, the curse of all creation will be lifted too. Why did God subject creation to futility? Paul answers that in verse 21, in hope that it will be set free… to obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. In mankind’s sinning, we lost our freedom as children of God and became enslaved children of the devil. And so God shattered the creation so that we would be constantly aware that something is wrong. And he cut us off from the tree of life so that we would not live forever. Imagine the horror of living in an earthly paradise with spiritual death. Once again, C. S. Lewis articulates this marvelously:
We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shovelling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
Creation is smashed as God’s megaphone to the catastrophe of sin and spiritual death. But when our sin is done away with forever, when our bodies are glorified, there is no more need for God to shout at us through the pain of a broken world. Natural disasters and famines and decay have no place in the New Creation, but creation itself will be liberated with us.
So in the meantime, creation is chomping at the bit for our redemption. Niagra Falls wants to be released from its bondage to corruption. The Grand Canyon is presently subjected to futility, and even its glory is hidden from the full potential God has in store for it. The whole creation has been groaning in the pains of childbirth with baited breath for our redemption.
This is part of the hope of your salvation, Christian. Yes, we will get a new body that we can enjoy in fellowship with each other and with our Lord Jesus. But what good would that glorified body be without a glorified New Creation to enjoy it in? Do you really think God is going to let Satan ruin his masterpiece forever? The hope of a restored creation and a restored body with Jesus is the hope of our salvation, and it ought to motivate our perseverance.
I can distinctly remember as a kid, sitting on my grandmother’s porch swing, and thinking that heaven sounded so boring. I had pictures in my head of clouds and singing and harps, and someone actually told me that heaven would be one eternal church service. Now I don’t know about you, but that wasn’t exactly the most motivating prospect for me. We’ve only been here an hour and some of you are already wondering whether you’re going to make it home for the kickoff.
There will be glorious assemblies of the redeemed from every tribe and tongue and language and nation. But there will be feasting and celebrating, too. There will be cities, and you might get to govern one! There will be aged wine, and rich food full of marrow, and rivers and trees, and we will enjoy it all with bodies that don’t break down. And we will have the fullness of the Holy Spirit without measure, and—the greatest gift of all—you will get to see Jesus’s face and nail-pierced hands and feet.
These promises are for you, Christian. Let this hope sustain you in your moments of suffering and temptation. Fill your imagination with all the joys you can think up. Don’t worry that you’ll get your heart set on an idea and then get disappointed—whatever wonderful idea you come up with, you’re not going to out-do God’s creativity. The next time you go for a walk and look at the colors on the trees, think to yourself, “And this is the subjected-to-futility version.” Take your favorite color, your favorite flavor, your favorite texture and imagine it up an octave. And when the tempter comes to you and says, “Here, abuse this fleeting pleasure,” you can turn back to him and way, “No way, loser. I’ll take fullness of joy in his presence and pleasures forevermore at his right hand, thank you very much.”
We’ve climbed up the ladder from the groan of heirs to the groan of creation. Now let’s arrive back at the inference that Paul draws from all of these subterranean realities. I close with point 3.
The Groan of Glory (8:18)
The thesis statement of this paragraph seems nearly unthinkable, until you see the logic that Paul uses to support his statement. So now let’s look at it again, this time with the promises of verses 19–25 still ringing in our ears. Turn to verse 18:
For I consider that the suffering of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
So which of the two options is it? Is our suffering really not all that bad; or is the hope of glory really all that wonderful? Glory is really that amazing.
Paul knows what it means to suffer.
I am a servant of Christ with far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11: 23-28).
This is the man who wrote, “If we are 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.”
We will be united to Jesus in his resurrection, provided we are united to him in his death. You will get a glorified body like Jesus, and you will get it by taking up your cross and following after him. Suffering is real, and Christians don’t pretend otherwise. We groan and we wait. We lament and cry out, “How long, O Lord! Come quickly, Lord Jesus!” But we never take our eyes off our hope, and so we wait patiently in our groaning.
Feast on these promises today. The sufferings of this present time are real, and they are hard. But they will not even register on the scale compared to what God has in store for those who love his Son.
 C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 265–266.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 90–91.