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.”