Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Romans (Part 2)

Romans 8:18-25

Verses 18-25 are part of the wider section spanning chapter 8, the fourth, and final, major section of the probatio of Romans (Rom 1:18-8:39). The first three sections were:

    • Rom 1:18-3:20: Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment, according to the Law (of God)
    • Rom 3:21-5:21: Announcement of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ), apart from the Law (Torah)
    • Rom 6:1-7:25: Announcement of Freedom from the Law and Sin

This last section (chapter 8) I would divide as follows (for more on this outline, cf. the article in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”):

    • Rom 8:1-30: Announcement of Life in the Spirit (Exhortation)
      8:1-11: The conflict (for believers) between the Spirit and the Flesh
      8:12-17: Believers are sons (of God) and heirs (with Christ) through the Spirit
      8:18-25: Believers have the hope of future glory (new creation) through the Spirit
      8:26-30: Believers experience the work of salvation through the Spirit
    • Rom 8:31-39: Doxology: The Love of God (in Christ)

As indicated above, the primary theme of chapter 8 is the new life in the Spirit that believers experience, representing the culmination of the “salvation history” or “order of salvation” that Paul lays out in the probatio of Romans.

In verses 12-17, believers are identified as the children (“sons”) of God, an identity that is realized through the Spirit (cp. Gal 4:6). In verse 18, this discussion shifts to the future aspect of our Christian identity, comparing the situation for believers currently (whether understood as Paul’s time or our own) in the world, with what awaits the faithful in the Age to Come. Thus, Rom 8:18-25 is fundamentally eschatological, marking the climax of this last division of the salvation history, at the point in time where believers are positioned—i.e., living at the end of the current Age.

Verse 18

“For I count [i.e. consider] that the sufferings of th(is) moment now (are) not brought up (as equal) toward the honor [do/ca] (be)ing about to be uncovered unto us.”

The noun pa/qhma has the basic meaning “suffering, misfortune”, something negative which happens to a person. Paul uses it (always in the plural, 9 times) in two primary contexts: (1) the sufferings in the flesh, i.e. the impulse toward sin which resides in the flesh (even for believers), along with the suffering this causes (Rom 7:25; Gal 5:24), and (2) the sufferings which believers endure (from non-believers, especially) for the sake of Christ and the Gospel (2 Cor 1:5-7, etc). Both aspects are rightly considered as part of the suffering faced by believers in the present Age, which Paul (and his readers) saw as swiftly coming to a close. Here, the contrast is between the present suffering of believers, and the future honor/glory that waits for them. The present suffering, no matter how severe, does not measure up to the greatness of this future glory. The adjective a&cio$ draws upon the idiom of weighing—i.e. the weight of something which brings up the beam of the scales into balance. The implication is that the future glory far outweighs the present suffering (cp. 2 Cor 4:17).

The use of the auxiliary verb me/llw, indicating that something is about to occur, is another sign that for Paul this eschatological expectation was imminent. He fully expected that those believers to whom he was writing would soon be experiencing this do/ca— “about to be uncovered unto us”.

Verse 19

“For the (stretch)ing of the head of the (thing) formed (by God) looks out to receive th(is) uncovering of the sons of God.”

The statement is almost impossible to translate literally in English, with its wordplay involving the compound noun a)pokaradoki/a and verb a)pekde/xomai. Both compounds are based on the verbal root de/xomai, which denotes a person receiving something. The noun connotes an eager expectation, literally signifying the stretching of the head out (or up), i.e. in anticipation of something coming. The word kti/si$ means something (or someone) that has been formed, i.e. by God; it is used by Paul 5 times in chapter 8, emphasizing the nature of human beings as part of the current order of creation. In other words, believers are living in this (current) created order—that is, in the present Age—all the while waiting for, and expecting, the uncovering of the future glory. Note again the identification of believers as “sons (i.e. children) of God”. Moreover, Paul speaks as though creation itself, taken as a whole, shares in this expectation (cf. below on vv. 20ff); thus there is an inherent ambiguity in the word kti/si$—does it refer comprehensively to all that God has created, or simply to the created nature of human beings?

Verses 20-21

“For the (thing) formed was set under an (arranged) order, in futility, (and) not willingly (so), but through the (one) setting (it) under the (arranged) order—upon hope—(in) that even the (thing) formed it(self) will be set free from the slavery of th(is) decay into the freedom of the honor of the offspring of God.”

Paul’s syntax here is notoriously difficult to interpret with precision, though the basic idea is clear enough. Several strands of theological language and religious tradition are brought together:

    • A continuation of the slavery/freedom motif that has been developed throughout Romans. Human beings have been enslaved under the power of sin since the time of the first human (Adam), when sin (and the idea of sin) was introduced into the world (see chapters 5 and 7). Through trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ, believers are freed from this bondage.
    • Metaphysical dualism—Related to the slavery/bondage theme is the idea that the current created order has ‘fallen’ into a condition dominated by death and decay (fqora/); as a result, human beings are trapped within this fallen order, needing rescue/deliverance by God (through Christ). In this regard, Paul shares much in common with many “Gnostics”, but differs from them fundamentally by his emphasis that the goal is not simply escape from the material condition, but that the material world itself would be transformed.
    • The Adam/Christ parallel—This was the main organizing principle for Paul’s line of argument in chapter 5, and it is likely that he is alluding to it again here. It is the mythic-narrative corollary to the slavery vs. bondage contrast, defining it according to the narratives surrounding two contrasting persons—one introducing sin into the world, the other delivering the world from sin.

The difficult syntax of vv. 20-21, can, I think, be clarified by considering the thematic structure of the phrases as a chiasm:

    • Creation set under an arranged order of things—in futility
      • It is set under this arranged order through Adam’s sin (implied)
        • Yet this arrangement is based upon an underlying hope
      • It will be set free from this order, through Christ’s saving work (implied)
    • Creation will be freed into a new order of things—out of slavery/decay

According to this line of interpretation, the subject of the participle u(pota/canta is Adam (representing all of humankind). By refusing to put himself under God’s order (cp. use of the vb u(pota/ssw in 8:7; 10:3), he effectively placed the world under a ‘fallen’ order (with the introduction of the enslaving power of sin). Many commentators would see God as the implied subject of u(pota/canta, influenced perhaps by the language in 1 Cor 15:27-28 and the tradition of God (YHWH) cursing the ground, etc, in Genesis 3. While theologically correct, this is unlikely in the rhetorical context here, given the emphasis on the nature of the bondage that Paul describes throughout Romans, and the specific Adam/Christ parallel in chapter 5. Closer to the thought in Romans (and Galatians) would be the idea that the Law subjected creation to the bondage under sin (Rom 7:7-13; Gal 3:22ff). Chapters 5 and 7 present two ways of viewing and explaining the same dynamic—of how humankind came to be enslaved to the power of sin.

The honor (do/ca) that awaits for believers is to be understood primarily in terms of the coming resurrection, as Paul makes clear in the following verses. It is established here by the formal parallel between do/ca and fqora/ (“decay”), the latter indicating the mortality of the created order, in bondage under the power of death.

Verses 22-23

“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).”

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.

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 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.

Verses 24-25

“For in hope we are saved; but hope being looked at is not hope, for who hopes (after) that which he (can) look at? But if we hope (for) that which we do not look at, (then) we look to receive (it) through (our) remaining under.”

This “hope” (e)lpi/$, and related verb e)lpi/zw) is the same as that mentioned by Paul at the center of vv. 20-21, where the fallen created order, currently in bondage to sin and death, is said to be based upon an underlying hope (“upon hope”, e)f’ e)lpi/di). Now this hope is defined as the salvation of humankind—believers—with their/our identity as sons/children of God. This ultimate deliverance is not something that can be looked at or seen clearly in the material world, for two reasons: (1) salvation is primarily eschatological, realized only at the end of the current Age, and (2) it is currently experienced only through the presence of the Spirit, which is not objectively visible to people at large. With trust and patience, believers endure suffering in the present Age—the temptation of the flesh and persecution by the world—captured by the word u(pomonh/, which literally means “remaining under”, i.e. under obedience to God and Christ. This is the attitude we are to have while waiting for the final salvation—the resurrection and transformation of our bodies.

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