James C. Denison
Late last week I was privileged to speak at a theological conference in Corpus Christi. A friend allowed me the use of his condo on the beach, where I watched the sun come up over the ocean. I have always been a beach person, from the first time my family took me to Galveston as a kid. There’s something about the ocean which speaks to my soul. If there were two of me, one would be a pastor in Dallas and one would be a beach bum somewhere. I don’t know a more amazing sight than a seaside sunrise, or a more powerful sound that the ocean washing ashore.
But in the midst of that beautiful morning scene, there was a nagging, gnawing sense inside me that there must be more than this. As spectacular as that sunrise was, it’s not enough. There’s something else, something greater, something more. I’m not the first to have such a sensation.
You know the feeling, don’t you? A mountain covered with snow, or a crystal clear trout stream, or a rolling meadow. A concert by your favorite band, or your favorite movie of the year, or the chance to stand before the painting you had always wanted to see. You’re finally there, but it’s not enough. There’s something more.
Or you have achieved the job you had always wanted, or gotten into the school you had long hoped would admit you, or joined the club or organization you so admired, or bought the home you had dreamed of owning, or took the trip you had planned all your life. What’s the best thing that has happened to you in recent months? How long did the thrill last? How deep was the fulfillment? How different are you now?
Our text today is all about hope. False hope and real hope. Hope which fails you and hope which sustains you.
You cannot live without hope. A mouse dropped in water will give up and drown in minutes. But if it is rescued, it will tread water for more than 20 hours the next time. Survivors of POW camps report that a compelling hope for the future was the primary force that kept many of them alive.
If you don’t think life will get better, it’s hard to go on. Why do you need hope this morning? Where should you go to find it? There’s a bad answer and a good answer. Paul will help us choose wisely.
Bad news and good news
Our text begins with the bad news: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (v. 22).
“We know”–this is common knowledge, conventional wisdom, a fact everyone admits. “The whole creation”–every person in this room and every living thing on this planet. “Has been groaning”–the Greek means “groaning together,” all sharing the same suffering. “As in the pains of childbirth”–the most horrendous pain a person can know.
The Jews used this metaphor for the times before the coming of Messiah; the Greeks used it to describe the dead of winter just before the rebirth of spring. The metaphor carries the idea of hope–our suffering has purpose, as a mother’s pain brings a child into the world. There is hope and future in the midst of the trauma of life on this fallen planet.
This is happening “right up to the present time.” Paul, the greatest missionary and apostle in Christian history, is not exempt. Neither are you. Neither am I.
I remember when I first realized that suffering is a part of life, and that not all of it is my fault. I shouldn’t be surprised when things break and people fail. This is a fallen world acting like a fallen world. Disasters and disease and suffering are part of life, for the perfect Son of God and everyone else.
Now comes the good news: “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (v. 23).
“We ourselves” is extremely emphatic in the Greek. Paul includes himself in the strongest possible terms, something like “we especially.” “Have the firstfruits of the Spirit.” “Have” points to a present-tense reality: we “have” the Spirit right now. The firstfruits were the first results of the harvest, always given to God in worship and thanksgiving. They were given during the holiday of Pentecost, the very time when the Spirit was given to God’s people as a firstfruit of the eternal harvest to come. We already have the Spirit of God living in us as the children of God.
Yet we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons.” We have already been adopted (v. 15); the papers have been signed, the verdict rendered. But we’re not yet out of the orphanage. We must still eat the poor food the orphanage can afford, and sleep under extra blankets because the orphanage’s heating system is old and decrepit, and face life every day as orphans. But our Father is coming soon to get us and bring us into his mansion in glory. We “wait eagerly” for that day to come.
When it does, we’ll receive “the redemption of our bodies.” To “redeem” in the Bible is to trade old for new, to replace, to trade up. You won’t get a better body–you’ll get a new body. You won’t get a better world–you’ll get a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). This is true for every child of God.
In the meanwhile, “in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?” (v. 24). In the midst of, as we experience this hope, “we were saved.” The Greek makes it clear that our salvation is done, secured, completed.
But while we were saved, we are not yet saved. We will one day be adopted and redeemed. So we wait in hope for that day we cannot prove, for “hope that is seen is no hope at all.”
We cannot see heaven; we cannot prove the existence or love of God; we cannot prove that we will spend eternity in heaven with our Father. If we could, we would have not hope but fact. As Paul says, “Who hopes for what he already has?” Who today is hoping for the car you bought last week, or the promotion you received in January?
This is the case with all future experience–nothing in the future can be proven in the present. I cannot prove that I will be alive tomorrow, or that you will. I cannot prove that I will finish this sermon, or that you will finish hearing it. I cannot prove that the world will be here tomorrow, for Jesus could come back this afternoon.
So “we hope for what we do not yet have” and “wait for it patiently” (v. 25). Life is hard now. We live in a fallen world which is “groaning” under the consequences of sin. But one day our adoption will be completed, our bodies exchanged for eternal ones.
In the meantime we’ll look for meaning and purpose in the Creator, not his creation; in God, not ourselves; in heaven, not earth. When we put our hope, our need for meaning and fulfillment, in this world, we are inevitably disappointed. Only when we put our hope in God is our hope fulfilled. That’s Paul’s thesis. Let’s explore it for a moment.
Where to find hope today
Over the weekend I rented the only car Hertz had left in Corpus Christi–a Hyundai Elantra. Not bad for a cheap rental, but not the car Jeff Gordon wants to drive at the Texas Motor Speedway. That’s not its purpose.
You can play tennis with a football or golf with a bowling ball, but it’s not much fun. Things work best when they’re used for their intended purpose. My wireless microphone wouldn’t make a very good hammer, but talking into a hammer isn’t going to help my sermon much.
It is a biblical fact that this world was never intended to give our lives meaning and purpose. It’s the wrong tool for the job. It was never supposed to replace the Creator. We weren’t supposed to find ultimate purpose and joy in places or people or things or events.
There is a God-shaped emptiness in each of us, so that our hearts are restless until they rest in him. We are supposed to “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness,” knowing that everything else will be added to us (Matthew 6:33). We are supposed to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4), not in the world. We are called to leave our boats and nets to follow Jesus and fish for men. We are supposed to go wherever he leads, do whatever he asks, give whatever he wants. That’s biblical Christianity.
If we truly follow Jesus, we use the world to work for God. We use our possessions and opportunities to glorify him. We use our relationships to help people follow Jesus. We use our gifts and abilities and money to extend his Kingdom.
We stop trying to find purpose and joy in our fallen world, and seek them in knowing Jesus and making him known. We die to the world so we can live with Christ. We live on the vertical, for the eternal. And one day when our adoption is complete and our bodies are redeemed, our hope will become fact and time will be eternity in Paradise.
So Paul is inviting us to a monumental shift in our way of approaching life. Stop trying to find joy and fulfillment in what you do and have and how many people like you. Die to all of that. Start using what you do and have to serve your Savior. Start using your relationships to help people follow Jesus. Start living the surrendered life, the exchanged life, the Spirit-filled life. And the paradox is that the less you live for the world, the greater your joy in the world.
As usual, C. S. Lewis explains this decision better than I can:
“God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other.
“That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended–civilizations are built up–excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down. They are trying to run it on the wrong juice” (Mere Christianity).
Here’s the bottom line: Our culture makes us consumers, but consumers don’t make good disciples. Jesus calls us to surrender, to submit, to live every moment for his glory and purpose, knowing that our hope is not in today but in eternity. Then your life will find the fulfillment no sunrise over the ocean can ever supply.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who gave his life to fight Nazism and stand for the gospel, was right: “when Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” That’s because only a person who dies can be resurrected. Only what we give to God can be blessed by God. Only what we submit to his perfect will can experience his perfect will. Only those who walk with Jesus can know the joy of Jesus.
So trade up. As Lewis reminds us, aim for heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in; aim for earth and you’ll get neither. Trade in your Elantra for a race car, your sunrise over the ocean for a sunrise one day in Paradise. You’ll be glad you did, now and forever.
This is the invitation of God.