July 6: Romans 8:23, etc

These recent daily notes have dealt with the Old Testament traditions regarding the Spirit of God, and how they were developed by early Christians (as expressed within the New Testament). This study is a continuation of the series on “The Spirit of God in the Old Testament”, and has proceeded through the (Synoptic) Gospels, the book of Acts, and the letters of Paul (through Romans, c. 58 A.D.). These letters—1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans—provide the best evidence for Paul’s view of the Spirit, and his distinctive development of the early Christian tradition. The references to the Spirit in the remainder of the Pauline corpus generally follow along the same lines, and, for the most part, it is not necessary to examine them all in detail. Before proceeding with a survey, however, it is worth considering a particular aspect of his view of the Spirit, which is expressed primarily in Romans 8:18-23. I have discussed this passage in detail as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and here focus on the concluding verses (22-23).

Romans 8:23

“For we have seen that all th(at has been) formed groans together and is in pain together, until th(is moment) now; and not only (this), but also (our)selves, holding the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest) of the Spirit, even we (our)selves groan in ourselves, looking out to receive (our) [placement as sons], (and) the loosing of our body from (bondage).” (vv. 22-23)

Two different images are employed here, both of which were traditionally used in an eschatological context: (1) the pain of giving birth, and (2) harvest imagery. Both images refer to the climax of a period (of growth and labor, etc), thus serving as suitable figure-types for the end of the current Age. The birth-pain imagery was used especially in reference to the end-time period of distress (cf. Mark 13:9, 17 par; Luke 23:28-29ff, etc), while the harvest tended to prefigure the end-time Judgment (Matt 3:12 par; 13:39-43; Mark 4:29; Rev 14:15ff; cf. also Luke 10:2; Jn 4:35). This judgment-motif involved the separation of the righteous from the wicked (i.e. the grain from the chaff), which was understood in terms of the gathering of believers to Jesus at the moment of his end-time return (Mk 13:26-27 par; Rev 14:15-16). Paul, at least, specifically included the resurrection of dead believers in this gathering (1 Thess 4:14-17), and clearly made use of harvest-imagery in his discussion on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 (vv. 20-23, 36ff). Jesus himself was the “beginning (fruit) from (the harvest)” (a)parxh/), and believers share this same status, through the Spirit, possessing the same life-giving power that raised Jesus from the dead. This is what Paul means when he says that as believers we hold “the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest) of the Spirit“; elsewhere the Spirit is described as a kind of deposit (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5), guaranteeing for us the promise of resurrection:

“And the (One) making us firm with you in (the) Anointed, (hav)ing anointed us, (is) God, the (One) also (hav)ing sealed us and (hav)ing given (us) the a)rrabw/n of the Spirit in our hearts.” (2 Cor 1:21-22)

The word a)rrabw/n is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew (loanword) /obr*u@, and refers to a pledge or deposit as a guarantee of future payment. Paul’s use of it is eschatological—it is a promise of resurrection for believers, entailing transformation of the human person (body-soul-spirit) to share in the heavenly, eternal life of God. Our resurrection (as believers) is patterned after Jesus’ own, and is made possible by our union with him, realized through the Spirit. As we participate in his death, so also we participate in his resurrection. The motif of the seal (sfra/gi$, vb sfragi/zw) has two aspects of meaning: (1) marking the identity of the one making the promise (God), and (2) preserving the promise and keeping it intact for a period of time (until the end). The second aspect is particularly emphasized by Paul; on the first aspect, cf. 2 Tim 2:19 (and cp. Rev 7:1-8). The same imagery occurs in Ephesians:

“…in whom [i.e. Christ] also, (hav)ing trusted, you were sealed [e)sfragi/sqhte] with the holy Spirit of the e)paggeli/a [i.e. promise], which is the a)rrabw/n of our share (in) the lot (of God), unto (the) loosing from (bondage)…” (Eph 1:13-14)

“And you must not bring sorrow (to) the holy Spirit of God, in which you were sealed [e)sfragi/sqhte] unto (the) day of loosing from (bondage).” (Eph 4:30)

The “loosing from [bondage]” (a)polu/trwsi$) refers to human existence in the current Age, this present order of creation. Paul’s entire discussion in Romans 8:18-23ff relates to this idea that all of creation will be transformed in the Age to Come, and that believers in Christ are the “first fruits” of this transformation (cf. above). On the Holy Spirit as e)paggeli/a—that is, God’s announcement (or message, a)ggeli/a) regarding salvation and eternal life in Christ—cf. Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4; 2:33, 39; 13:23, 32, etc; it is identified specifically as such by Paul in Gal 3:14ff.

Because believers continue to live in the world, in the current created order, as human beings, we groan suffering along with all of creation, since our bodies (our “flesh”) remain, to some extent, under the old bondage to sin and death. We must still confront the impulse to sin in our flesh, and we all face the reality of physical death. Our deliverance from this bondage will not be complete until the transformation of our bodies, as stated here by Paul— “the loosing of our body from (bondage)”, using the noun a)polu/trwsi$. His temporal expression a&xri tou= nu=n is a shorthand for the tou= nu=n kairou= (“of the moment now”) in verse 18, another indication of the imminence of Paul’s eschatology—that is, it was about to happen now.

There is some textual uncertainty regarding the noun ui(oqesi/a (“placement as son[s]”) in verse 23, as it is omitted in a number of key manuscripts (Ë46 D F G 614). If secondary, then the text originally would have read: “…looking out to receive the loosing of our body from (bondage)” —i.e., the reference would be entirely to the resurrection, without any mention of the ‘adoption’ motif. However, as the sonship-theme was central to vv. 12-17, as also the expression “sons of God” in v. 19, the use of ui(oqesi/a would be entirely fitting here in v. 23. The resurrection serves to complete the realization of believers as the sons (children) of God. On the role of the Spirit in terms of our identity as “sons of God”, cf. the prior note on Gal 4:1-7 and Rom 8:12-17.

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