May 3: Romans 8:21-23

Romans 8:21-23

Towards the end of chapter 8 (cf. the previous note on Rom 8:10-11), Paul brings in a strong eschatological emphasis. Many Christians today do not fully appreciate the importance of eschatology in early Christian thought. I have discussed the subject at length in the earlier series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament” (cf. the Part 2 of the article on Romans). For first-century Christians, their eschatology was imminent, expecting  that the end would come very soon, probably within the lifetime of most believers. Salvation was understood primarily in terms of being saved from the coming Judgment.

Following the Judgment, a New Age would be inaugurated for humankind; the eschatological expectation of many Jews and Christians of the time included the idea of a complete transformation of all creation—drawing upon the prophetic tradition of a “new heavens and new earth” (Isa 65:17ff; 66:22; cf. Revelation 21:1-2; 2 Peter 3:13). Paul is expressing a similar idea here in Rom 8:18-23, working from the premise, shared by most Christians at the time, that the New Age had already been ushered in, but was only realized (in the present) for believers. This way of thinking is typically referred to as “realized eschatology” —the promise of salvation, eternal life, the resurrection of the body, and so forth—all of this is experienced by believers in Christ, in a preliminary way, through the presence of the Spirit.

Thus, as Paul expounds the matter in vv. 18-23, believers represent the ‘first-fruits’, a)parxh/, literally the beginning (of the ingathering) from (the harvest)—the harvest being a natural motif for the end of the Age. The good grain/fruit is brought in, while the bad/useless chaff is discarded (and burnt up)—cf. Mark 4:29; Matt 3:12 par; 13:30, 38ff; Rev 14:15-20; also Matt 9:37-38 par; John 4:35; cp. Jer 51:33; Joel 3:13, etc). From an eschatological standpoint, this signifies a temporal priority—i.e., the initial transformation of believers, through our possession of the Spirit, marks the beginning of the New Age.

For believers in Christ, the end time, in spite of the suffering (like that of a woman in labor) that takes place, ultimately provides a reason for great hope. Indeed, Paul declares that the present (eschatological) suffering cannot compare to the honor/splendor (do/ca) which we are about to experience (v. 18). In his words, the sufferings of “the time (right) now” are not comparable to the do/ca “being about to be uncovered [i.e. revealed] unto us” (note the imminence of this expectation). The prepositional expression ei)$ h(ma=$ could also be translated “in us”.

This hope for believers also gives hope to the rest of creation (as a whole). Paul refers to this in verse 19 as the “a)pokaradoki/a of the foundation”. The compound noun a)pokaradoki/a is almost impossible to translate; it essentially refers to the act of stretching out one’s head (and neck) with the hopes of seeing/perceiving something. The noun kti/si$, which I translate as “foundation,” properly refers to something that is founded or formed (vb kti/zw), cf. Rom 1:25. It is best understood here in a comprehensive/collective sense, referring to all of creation (cp. the use in Rom 1:20). Creation is looking out, hoping to receive (i.e. experience) the end-time manifestation of “the sons of God” (i.e. believers). Currently, this identity of believers is hidden, realized only internally, through the presence of the Spirit; eventually, the honor/splendor (do/ca) of this status will shine forth for all to see.

In verses 20-22, Paul strikingly attributes to all of creation, the same bondage (doulei/a, lit. slavery) which human beings suffered, prior to the coming of Christ. Just as all of humankind was in bondage to the power of sin and death, so all of creation is similarly enslaved. The primary manifestation of this is the fact that all of creation is subject to death and decay (fqora/). Creation has been put in (submissive) order under the authority of sin/death; this idea is expressed by the verb u(pota/ssw. However, the subject of the participle u(pota/canta in v. 20, referring to the person who put creation under this bondage, is not entirely clear. The best explanation is that Paul identifies God as the ultimate cause—He subjected creation to this bondage, allowing it to be so enslaved, with the final hope in mind: that eventually all of creation would be set free from this bondage.

Currently, this freedom is only experienced by believers in Christ, and only through the internal presence of the Spirit. But the time will (soon) come when the same freedom will be realized by all of creation:

“…even the foundation [i.e. creation] itself will be set free from the slavery of th(is) decay, into the freedom of the honor/splendor [do/ca] of the offspring of God.” (v. 21)

All of creation collectively suffers (v. 22), groaning and being in pain (like a woman in labor), but this suffering will lead to a new birth—the manifestation of the sons/children of God. Here in chap. 8, Paul utilizes both the noun ui(o/$ (ui(oi/, “sons”), and the more generic te/knon (pl. te/kna), “offspring”, with no real difference in meaning. By contrast, in the Johannine writings, believers are always referred to as “offspring [te/kna] of God”, with the noun ui(o/$ (“son”) reserved for Jesus. Paul’s use of ui(oi/ in vv. 14, 19 is perhaps influenced by the adoption motif in chapter 8 (esp. verses 14-17). The noun ui(oqesi/a literally means “placement as a son” (cf. also Gal 4:5 in context). Paul does, however, share with the Johannine writings the belief that Divine sonship is realized exclusively through our relationship to Jesus, the unique Son (vv. 29ff).

The climax of this exposition comes in verse 23, where Paul (finally) makes reference again to the Spirit. He makes clear that the transformation of creation will occur just as it does for believers—through the life-giving power of the Spirit:

“And not only (this), but (we our)selves, holding the beginning from (the harvest) of the Spirit, we also groan in ourselves, (look)ing out to receive placement as son(s), the loosing from (bondage) of our bodies.”

The occurrence of the noun ui(oqesi/a again here in v. 23 (indicated in light gray text) is problematic, and some commentators would omit it. Indeed, it is not present in a number of manuscripts (Ë46 D F G 614). Its inclusion would imply that believers do not already have “placement as (God’s) sons,” quite contrary to what Paul indicated earlier in vv. 14-17. By contrast, what we are currently still awaiting is the full realization of this identity—which will take place at the end-time resurrection, when our bodies will at last be set free from bondage to death. In this regard, we have the same groaning expectation as the rest of creation, even though we have already been set free from bondage within, through the presence of the Spirit.

Though Paul does not state this here, the transforming power of the Spirit, communicating the live-giving power of God (over death), is specifically related to our participation in the death of Jesus. This is to be inferred based on what was said earlier in vv. 10-11 (as also in 6:1-11)—on which, cf. the discussion in the previous note.

Spiritualism and the New Testament: John: The Paraclete (1)

The Johannine Paraclete Sayings

As we continue through the Johannine writings in this series, we turn now to the Paraclete-statements by Jesus in the Gospel. There are five of these—14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7-11, 12-13ff—which all occur within the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33), presented in the narrative as occurring on the night of the Last Supper, prior to Jesus’ arrest. In these statements, the Spirit is referred to by the descriptive noun para/klhto$, from the verb parakale/w (“call alongside”), and thus denoting someone who is “called alongside” to give help and assistance to another.

The semantic range of this word makes it difficult to translate into English, as there is no single English word that corresponds. The noun para/klhto$ can carry a technical legal meaning, referring to an advocate or defense attorney, who argues (presenting evidence and calling witnesses) on behalf of a defendant. Thus, in the Gospel, the noun is sometimes translated “advocate”, but this is much too narrow, capturing only one aspect of the word’s meaning in context. Another connotation of the verb parakale/w, is of offering comfort or consolation to another; and para/klhto$ has often been translated in the Gospel as “comforter,” a rendering that is perhaps influenced by the use of the related noun para/klhsi$ (for example, in Luke 2:25). However, this, again, is far too narrow, and is misleading regarding the description of the Spirit’s role.

A similar translation, better for being more general, is “helper,” but this, too, is inadequate. For all these reasons, many translators and commentators choose to leave para/klhto$ untranslated, or to transliterate the word—parákl¢tos—usually anglicized as “paraclete”. I prefer to translate according to the fundamental meaning and etymology of the word, rendering it as “(one) called alongside,” allowing the context to determine the specific role and function(s) of the Spirit as a figure “called alongside” to assist believers.

I would divide the great Last Discourse into three distinct, interconnected discourses, with an introduction and conclusion that relate more directly to the literary (and historical) setting of the Last Supper scene (chap. 13):

    • 13:31-38Introduction to the Discourse
    • 14:1-31Discourse/division 1Jesus’ departure
      • The relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14)
      • Jesus’ Words for His Disciples (vv. 15-31)
    • 15:1-16:4aDiscourse/division 2—The Disciples in the World
      • Illustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • Instruction and Exhortation: The Disciples and the World (15:18-16:4a)
    • 16:4b-28Discourse/division 3—Jesus’ departure (farewell)
      • The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 4b-15)
      • Jesus’ Departure and Return (vv. 16-24)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 25-28)
    • 16:29-33Conclusion to the Discourse

The first two Paraclete-sayings occur in the second half of the first discourse (14:15-31), which may be summarized as containing Jesus’ words (teaching) for his disciples. I divide this teaching into two main parts—(1) instruction regard love and the commandments, and (2) and exhortation, in light of Jesus’ impending departure:

    • Instruction to the Disciples: Love and the Commandments (vv. 15-24)
    • Exhortation for the Disciples: Farewell Promise of Peace (vv. 25-27)
Saying 1: John 14:15-17

The first Paraclete-saying occurs as part of the instruction in vv. 15-24; indeed, it represents the first statement of the instruction, according to my expanded outline:

    • Instruction to the Disciples: Love and the Commandments (vv. 15-24)
      —Initial statement: Promise of the Spirit (vv. 15-17)
      —Instruction: Relation of the Disciples to Jesus and the Father (vv. 18-21)
      —Question by the disciples [Judas] (v. 22)
      —Jesus’ response: The disciples and the world in relation to Jesus and the Father (vv. 23-24)

The statement regarding the coming of the Spirit (vv. 16-17) is prefaced by a conditional clause (v. 15):

“If you would love me, you will keep watch (over) my e)ntolai/

The noun e)ntolh/ is typically translated, rather flatly, as “command(ment)”; however, this can be misleading, especially in terms of how the word is used within the Johannine writings. The fundamental meaning is of a charge or duty that is placed on a person, and which the person is obligated to complete. The noun is used in the Johannine writings in both the singular (e)ntolh/) and plural (e)ntolai/) with no real difference in meaning. It often refers to the duty (or mission) which God the Father gave the Son to complete; but here, of course, Christ is the one giving to his disciples a duty to complete.

The principal sense of this duty is that they will follow in his footsteps, completing the mission which he began. There are two aspects to their duty, which can be understood as two distinct ‘commands’, or as a single dual (two-fold) charge. This dual command is summarized neatly in 1 John 3:23-24: (a) trust in Jesus, and (b) love—that is, of believers following Jesus’ example in showing (sacrificial) love to one another. It is the latter aspect—i.e., the ‘love command’ —that is emphasized in the Last Discourse, but the motif of trust is firmly present as well.

If the disciples keep watch (vb thre/w) over their duty—trust and love—so as to fulfill it, then Jesus declares that:

“I will ask the Father, and He will give to you another (one) called alongside [para/klhto$], (so) that he may be with you into the Age, the Spirit of truth…”

There are four main points that we may isolate in this statement by Jesus.

1. First, we have the origin of the para/klhto$: he is sent by God the Father, at the request (vb e)rwta/w) of the Son (Jesus). The one “called alongside” thus has a heavenly origin, being sent—like Jesus himself—to the disciples from God the Father. The verb used is di/dwmi (“give”), a common word which has a special place in the theological vocabulary of the Gospel. The Father gives to the Son, and the Son, in turn, gives to believers. Foremost of what is thus given is Life and the Spirit. The essence of this fundamental chain of relation is perhaps best expressed by considering three statements in the earlier discourses:

    • “The (one) whom God se(n)t forth speaks the words of God, for (it is) not out of a measure (that) He gives the Spirit. The Father loves the Son, and has given all (thing)s in(to) his hand.” (3:34-35)
    • “For, just as the Father holds life in Himself, so also (has) He given life to the Son to hold in himself.” (5:26), and the Son “gives life” to whomever he wishes (v. 21)
    • “Just as the living Father se(n)t me forth, and I live through the Father, (so) also, (for) the (one) eating me, he also shall live through me.” (6:57)

This dynamic of giving becomes especially prominent in the great Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17, in which the verb di/dwmi occurs 17 times. See especially the formulation in verse 22:

“And I, the honor [do/ca] which you have given to me, I have given to them, (so) that they may be one, even as we (are) one.”

2. The second point to be noted in the Paraclete-saying is the designation of the Spirit as another (a&llo$) para/klhto$. The implication is that Jesus himself was also such a para/klhto$—one called (by God) to be alongside the disciples, teaching and helping them. This is confirmed by the reference to Jesus as a para/klhto$ in 1 John 2:1. The sense, then, is that the Spirit continues the work of Jesus alongside the disciples (believers). The impending departure of Jesus (back to the Father) requires that another be present with them while he is in heaven with the Father. At the same time, Jesus remains himself personally present with believers through the Spirit, though this point is not emphasized here in the Discourse.

3. The purpose and role of the para/klhto$, in this first saying, is to be with (ei)mi + meta/) believers until the end of the Age. This reflects the fundamental meaning of para/klhto$, with the prefixed preposition para/, indicating a close presence alongside someone. This idea is picked up and expanded at the close of verse 17:

“…you know him, (in) that he remains alongside [para/] you, and he will be in [e)n] you.”

The verb me/nw (“remain”) is a Johannine keyword, occurring 40 times in the Gospel, 24 times in 1 John, 3 in 2 John (and once in Revelation)—more than half of all occurrences (118) in the New Testament. It is used to express the idea of the abiding presence of God (and Christ) in believers, and, correspondingly, of believers in God/Christ—a uniting presence that is realized through the Spirit.

4. Finally, the para/klhto$ is also identified by the expression “the Spirit of truth” (to\ pneu=ma th=$ a)lhqei/a$). On the one hand, this is simply another way of referring to the Spirit of God, since truth (a)lh/qeia) is a fundamental characteristic and attribute of God. Beyond this, truth has a special place as a theological keyword and theme in the Johannine writings. The noun a)lh/qeia occurs 25 times in the Gospel, 9 times in 1 John, 5 in 2 John, and 6 in 3 John—nearly half (45) of all NT occurrences (109). It is referenced as a fundamental Divine attribute that is manifested in Jesus the Son of God—cf. 1:14, 17; 4:23-24; 8:32, etc. The essential predication declared by Jesus earlier in the Discourse (14:6) is of particular significance, in relation to the Paraclete-saying here, given the formal parallel in 1 John 5:6:

    • I am…the truth…” (Jn 14:6)
    • “the Spirit is the truth” (1 Jn 5:6)

If Jesus represents the truth of God on earth to his disciples, then the Spirit (Paraclete) must do the same for believers.

The expression “Spirit of truth” does not occur in the Old Testament, though truth (tm#a#) is certainly regarded as a fundamental Divine attribute which would also characterize God’s (holy) Spirit—e.g., Psalm 25:5; 43:3; 86:11; Isa 45:19; 65:16, etc. However, the corresponding Hebrew expression (tma[h] jwr) does occur a number of times in the Qumran texts (e.g., 1QS 3:18-19; 4:21), and scholars have pointed this out as a parallel (and possible source) for the title in the Gospel. In the Qumran texts, there many many instances of expressions following the pattern “(the) spirit of {attribute}”. Typically, the reference is to a positive (divine) attribute (possibly influenced by the sequence in Isa 11:2), but there are also instances where it is a negative (evil) characteristic being referenced. The expression “Spirit of truth,” as it occurs in 1 John 4:6, is closer to the Qumran usage than are the occurrences in the Paraclete-sayings of Jesus in the Gospel (also in 15:26; 16:13). I will be discussing the Qumran spirit-references in an upcoming series of notes (part of the “Spotlight on the Dead Sea Scrolls” feature).

It is the identification of the Spirit (Paraclete) with truth that defines the contrast in v. 17 between Jesus’ disciples (believers) and the world (o( ko/smo$). In the Johannine writings, ko/smo$ (“world-order”) is another theological keyword, occurring 78 times in the Gospel, 23 times in 1 John, and once in 2 John (also 3 times in Revelation)—well over half of all NT occurrences (186). It tends to be used a point of stark contrast, a dualistic juxtaposition, between the light and truth of God and a world, dominated by darkness and evil, that is opposed to the things of God.

Here is how Jesus frames the contrast, in relation to the Spirit/Paraclete, in verse 17:

“…the Spirit of truth, which the world is not able to receive, (in) that [i.e. because] it does not look on him or know (him); (but) you know him, (in) that he remains alongside you and will be in you.”

The verb lamba/nw (in the sense of “receive”) is yet another common word that takes on special theological meaning in the Johannine writings. In the Gospel, to “receive” Jesus (and what he gives) essentially means trusting in him (as the Son sent by God the Father), and then experiencing the gift of life through the presence of the Spirit. This is clear enough from the first occurrence of the verb in 1:12 (cp. paralamba/nw in v. 11), parallel with the final occurrence in the Gospel (20:22), when Jesus gives the Spirit to the first believers (his disciples), saying: “Receive [la/bete] (the) holy Spirit”.

The reason why the disciples know the Spirit is because they know God, and also know (= trust) in Jesus as the Son of God (10:4-5ff)—even though they may not have a full awareness of his identity until after his death and resurrection (8:28ff). This is an important theme in the Last Discourse, including the immediate context of this first Paraclete-saying (14:7-9ff, 20ff), and takes on even greater prominence in the Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17 (vv. 3, 7-8, 23-26). The world does not know Jesus the Son nor God the Father (7:28ff; 8:19, 55; 15:21; 16:3; 17:25-26), and so cannot possible know the Spirit either. Only believers—those elect/chosen ones who belong to God (17:2, 6ff, etc)—can recognize the presence of the Spirit.

The next part of this article will examine the second Paraclete-saying, in 14:25-26.