Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"THE SUFFERINGS OF THIS LIFE LEAD US TO GLORY."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ!
We wish it were so different, but it isn’t; the lives we’re given to live include so very much suffering. Who can measure how much hurt lives in the hearts of the individual members of this congregation? We’ll talk with each other about the hurts of broken bones and we can understand each other somewhat, and maybe we’ll even talk about the hurts of broken homes and here we’ll understand each other a little too. But who can capture accurately a sense of being rejected and misunderstood in what appears to be a happy marriage? And who can understand fully that sense of being distrusted and cast out by brothers of one house, or that sense of not being able to cope with what has happened long ago – who can understand, who can measure how much these things hurt? There’s so very much suffering in this vale of tears….
The apostle Paul is very aware of the reality of this suffering. He has himself been rejected by brethren, mistreated by authorities, stoned by angry mobs, harassed by Satan… (cf II Cor 11:22ff). He knows: the saints of Rome experience much suffering too. Creation groans in travail, children of God long for the full redemption promised in Jesus Christ but meanwhile are repeatedly frustrated by their seeming inability to pray as they ought. Suffering is so real, this life such a vale of tears….
No, congregation, Paul does not deny the brokenness of this life. But he does, through the working of the Holy Spirit, put this suffering into perspective. He would have us compare the weight of today’s suffering to the weight of glory that is here already – and then to know that the two just don’t compare; on the scales that count the weight of the glory that’s about to be revealed makes the suffering of today seem light as a feather.
I summarise the sermon with this theme:
THE SUFFERINGS OF THIS LIFE LEAD US TO GLORY.
In the context of all that Paul had written so far in his letter to the Romans, the topic of suffering seems to come out of the blue. You will recall what the apostle had already written. In chapter 1, Paul wrote that
"… the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness…" (vs 18),
with as result that in this life there is wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness, murder, strife, deceit, backbiting, violence, etc (1:29f). We understand that such evil cannot but produce much suffering.
But, the apostle continued in chaps 4 and 5, the Lord God has declared righteous all those who believe in Jesus Christ. His death is our life, so that there is for the people of God only grace. That leads to the bold conclusion of chap 8:1:
"There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus."
No condemnation: there remains for the believer no wrath from God, no punishments on their sins. Instead, these redeemed persons are, says Paul in vs 16, "children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ." And No, Paul does not cast this redemption into the distant future as a dream far removed from the realities of today. He’s emphatic: "there is … now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." This is today’s reality; those who believe in Jesus Christ are today freed from the wrath of God, are today children of God.
But that glorious reality invariably brings up a pressing question. That question is this: if today there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, how is it that today God’s children suffer? It’s in the face of that question that the apostle tacks onto the end of vs 17 the thought that suffering leads to glory. And it’s to work out this thought that the apostle writes the words of vss 18-30. Paul wants there to be no confusion among God’s people: the sufferings characterising this broken life have within themselves the seeds of glory set aside for those redeemed in Christ.
Groaning of Creation
How so? In the vss 19-27, Paul draws out three instances of where suffering is so obvious in this world. He writes in the vss 19-22 about the groaning of creation as a whole, that handiwork of God apart from man himself. He puts it like this in vs 20: "the creation was subjected to futility." In vs 21 he describes the suffering of creation as a "bondage of corruption." And in vs 22 he says that "the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together until now." Powerful pictures these are. Bondage of corruption, creation groaning with labour pains: what’s the apostle mean with this? Here we need, congregation, to go back in our thoughts to the words God spoke after our fall into sin. For God did not curse only the human race on account of sin; God’s curse extended to all the world that God had placed under man’s dominion. Recall God’s word to Adam in Gen 3:
"Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field" (vs 17f).
Notice it: the ground itself is cursed. By God’s decree the earth can no longer live up to the expectation for which it was created. No longer can it produce the crops it was created to produce, no longer can it sustain the life it was created to sustain. The rains will not come at the time the crops need the rain, weeds will grow where flowers ought to grow, storms will tear the trees from the ground, etc. On account of our fall into sin, the curse of sin squeezes life out of the earth. Sinful people too exploit the earth for personal gain, and as a result the earth itself must suffer more. Animals suffer as forests are chopped down. Rivers and their fish suffer as algae blooms spread. Birds suffer from the pesticides we spread to control the insects they would eat. There is a suffering in creation caused ultimately by our fall into sin in the beginning, and anybody living with his eyes open in today’s world can see something of the suffering characterising every aspect of the world around us.
Groaning of Christians
But –Paul continues- the suffering isn’t only in creation as a whole, the world of plants and animals, of soils and weather. For the apostle adds in the vss 23-25 that "we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves." That’s to say: the children of God within this world add their groans to those of creation. To see sin remain in us, to see so much evidence of brokenness in ourselves, in our families, in the church, in the world: how often does that not move the child of God to tears! Friction between brothers of one house, life-draining illness in loved ones, persistent pain and irreparable handicap, pressures of business, pressures to live and speak in a holy fashion in a Godless world: all of it and so much more brings groans of suffering from the lips even of those redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. And Paul adds: it’s precisely life’s brokenness that prompts us to long so much for the return of the Saviour, the redemption of our bodies.
Groaning of the Holy Spirit
But even this is not the extent of the groaning there is. The apostle moves on in the vss 26 & 27 to relate that also the Holy Spirit groans "with groanings which cannot be uttered." Here the point is that in our sufferings we cry out to God for redemption, cry out to God to treat us as sons. But the futility of this creation (vs 20) means that we do not know how to bring our true concerns to God in prayer. Truly, what does one say to God when a loved one has been killed in a traffic accident? Put it into words for me: How does one pray for the couple who have struggled in their marriage for years with the after-effects of sexual abuse as a child? How do you adequately lay before the Lord your feelings when you see persons slowly starving to death by a famine induced by corruption and human failings? We’re stuck for words, we’re lost as we search for words to say to the Almighty and Faithful Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…. In the face of that frustration on our part, Paul reminds us of the work of the Holy Spirit, of how He stands beside us in our groaning and groans along with us; He makes up what is lacking in our prayers to God.
Altogether, congregation, there is so very much suffering in this present time. Paul describes a symphony of groaning, with creation as a whole groaning in travail and the children of God adding their moaning to the groaning of creation, and the Holy Spirit in turn supplementing that doleful chorus with divine groanings too deep for human words…. That’s this present life: groaning upon groaning…. In truth, a vale of tears….
And we say: this is enough to get one down…. Surely, surely such a message shows up how ridiculous and empty is the gospel of Jesus Christ! In the midst of suffering so great that even the Holy Spirit of God groans along with the children of God, and the creation as a whole groans in its bondage of corruption also, of what value is to claim that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?? In the midst of suffering so great that the Holy Spirit joins our doleful chorus, what benefit is there in being children of God, and if children then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ? Surely the sufferings of this present time render worthless all the glorious words Paul can write about the work of Jesus Christ…. Paul said there was no condemnation?! Isn’t the existence of such groaning proof that condemnation abounds…?
But listen, my brothers and sisters, to what the apostle writes in our text. "For I consider," he says, "that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which is about to be revealed in us." There’s hope, says Paul, there’s hope within today’s suffering – second point.
Turn with me again, congregation, to consider what Paul writes about the groaning of creation. Vs 20: "the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope." Paul’s point is this. When we fell into sin in Paradise, God would have been fully in His right to destroy the earth immediately. But He didn’t. He instead pronounced a curse upon the world; we read that from Gen 3:17. Yet before He proclaimed the curse on creation, He first announced to the serpent –Gen 3:15- that He would crush its head. That is: the cause of suffering would be destroyed, sin would be paid for, Satan crushed. So the curse that God pronounced over the earth in Gen 3 was a curse set within the context of gospel, of hope. Instead of destroying creation altogether, God subjected creation to futility, to decay and frustration and disaster and death –why?- in order that He might at His time work deliverance from this bondage of corruption. The futility which the naked eye sees in creation has been set by God in the context of the hope of redemption, and that is why Paul in vs 22 can compare the groanings of creation to the groanings of the woman in labour. Labour itself is difficult, is painful, distinctly has its own suffering and groaning. But it’s a groaning in hope because there is the sure expectation that shortly a child will be born.
And so it is, says Paul, with creation. There’s so much suffering in the animal world, so much suffering among plants and rivers and fish and you name it. In it all the naked eye sees only futility. But the man of faith understands that the curse of God in Gen 3 has its context in the hope of the gospel, and so the man of faith sees the suffering of the world today as labour pangs – painful, yes, and the groaning is so loud. But labour pains precede a glorious birth; we anticipate the deliverance of this world from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty that belongs with the coming of the Son of God on the clouds of heaven. Today creation groans in travail, but tomorrow the new birth is there, and the glory which the children of God already possess in Jesus Christ will be evident for all to see - this earth shall be a Paradise Restored! On that day of Christ’s return, this earth shall know no more suffering, there shall be no more pollution, no more decay, no more inability of the earth to produce the abundance God’s people need. Then the groaning of the world shall be replaced with trees clapping their hands and hills skipping for joy, and the birds and the beasts singing together the glory of God Almighty – as David foretold in the psalms and Jesus announced to John in the Revelation on Patmos (cf Ps 65:13; Ps 98; Rev 5:13).
But it’s not only creation, beloved, that has hope built into its suffering. In vs 23 the apostle had described how Christians groan within themselves as they await the redemption of their bodies. But notice, brothers and sisters, that Paul in that verse describes Christians as those who "have the firstfruits of the Spirit." The "firstfruit" is in the Old Testament the first of the harvest, and so those firstfruits were symbolic of the fact that the rest of the harvest was sure to follow. Paul says here that we have the firstfruit –that’s the Holy Spirit- and so the rest is sure to follow; we’ll receive the fullness of the salvation that God has promised in Gen 3 and prepared in Jesus Christ.
Again, then, congregation, the suffering of the Christian today is a suffering in a context. Today we are children of God, today we have salvation. But God has been pleased to delay the fullness of this redemption; we won’t receive its fullness till Christ comes back. That tension between what is truly ours and what we actually experience gives its struggles. The hospitalised person who is now on the mend and so feels like doing his daily work again struggles not to overdo it; he reaches out, longs for what he knows is coming, and meanwhile has to put up with the frustration of not being able to enjoy today the fullness of what is coming tomorrow. So it is with the Christian in this broken world. We have salvation, we are redeemed in Christ from the futility of this broken life, and so we reach for, long for the fullness of that redemption. That longing for the new world produces the groaning of the Christian today. So it’s a groaning in a context of redemption, a groaning in hope, a groaning in the sure expectation that today’s suffering will soon be replaced by a glory so wonderful that we remember no more the anguish of today.
That hope that envelopes creation’s groaning, that hope which dominates also the Christian’s groaning is present, says Paul, also with the groaning of the Holy Spirit. For the groaning of the Holy Spirit appears in the context of prayer, of the intercession the Spirit makes for us. We need to understand this work of the Holy Spirit in light of our own weaknesses (vs 26a). In the midst of the suffering and brokenness of this life, we have those moments that we just don’t know how to pray, what to say to God…. Yet from inside our being rises a cry to God, a reaching out for God, a longing for His help, His salvation. See there the work of the Holy Spirit in sinful, finite hearts; where we run stuck and don’t know what to say or how to pray, it is the Holy Spirit who still prompts us through wordless groanings to cry out to God. And the Spirit, of course, perfectly knows our needs as God determines those needs to be, for He Himself is God (vs 27).
And there’s the hope in it all, brothers and sisters: will God not hear the groans prompted by His Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is true God; God groans to God, and that, that gives the deepest certainty to the Christian hope. The Spirit of God groans along, yes, prompts God’s own to keep calling out to God – even when they can’t find words to express their hurts, and that is why Triune God most definitely hears His people no matter the depth of their despair.
What it all means? Surely this: in the midst of all the suffering that characterises this life the Lord has placed so very much hope! The suffering is great and the groanings loud, but –Paul insists- God makes sure there is hope, much hope that even great suffering cannot snuff out. More, though the suffering is great and the groanings loud, the very groanings themselves are evidence that the glory of redemption is about to be revealed. Look at what Paul writes in vs 28:
"And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose."
"All things work together for good," says Paul, and with that phrase "all things" Paul means specifically every tribulation that may cross the path of any child of God in this vale of tears. Paul insists that suffering is not hopeless, is not senseless; on the contrary, all this suffering in some way works together for the good of those whom God has adopted to be His children. Through the suffering and the trials of this life, those whom God called to be His own in Jesus Christ are moulded to image His Son the more, so that Jesus "might be the firstborn among many brethren", the first of an innumerable host of children of God (vs 29) – all of whom are glorified with Christ (vs 30).
So we come to our third point, the glory surpassing today’s suffering.
Yes, beloved, what shall we say of the suffering characterising today’s life? The suffering is certainly real, there’s no doubt of that. And the longing for redemption is real also. But this, congregation, is the gospel that comes to us in the midst of the suffering of today: there is a glory in the offing so wonderful that the suffering is by comparison of no account! It is as Jesus once said to His disciples:
"…you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you" (Jn 16:20ff).
Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and Satan, and so the strength of the bondage enslaving this world to corruption and decay and suffering and groaning is broken. Jesus Christ has triumphed, and so the bitter results of our fall into sin are undone and hence the curse of God on creation undone also. No wonder that there is within creation an eager expectation for the revealing of the sons of God! And the firstfruits of the Spirit we now possess shall overflow into ever fruit of the Spirit filling the heart of the child of God in fullness of glory; as heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ we shall be free of every trace of sin and therefore display fullness of love and fullness of joy and fullness of peace and of patience and of kindness and of gentleness and of self-control. That’s the adoption we today eagerly wait for, the redemption of our body. For there shall be no sin in us any more! Instead of sin there shall be only glory, glory so splendid that no eye has seen it and no ear has heard how wonderful is the glory God has prepared in the Paradise He has restored for us.
In truth, beloved, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Even the sufferings today don’t change that fact. It’s only a matter of time before the baby is born….
"Come, Lord Jesus!" Amen.