NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson XXX)
Early church leader Cyril of Alexandria gives us something to think about by saying that nature is incapable of knowing anything about the promises God made to believers because it has no comprehension of them. Cyril’s reason for seeing it this way is that if nature ever realized that they were included in such promises, it would hardly continue to sprout, blossom, bear fruit, and die year after year. Furthermore, it would not want to be identified with those weeds that produce nothing worthwhile. Still, Paul says, that nature is nevertheless subject to hope, for one day the saints of yesteryear and the elect of today will be saved, and then the yoke which has been imposed on it by God will be removed. In other words, it will be free to be what God created it to be in the first place. Until then, nature groans and in some sense labors and grieves. If nature did have any awareness of the believer’s state of being, it probably would burst out crying in envy.1 In fact, the NT tells us that in the new Jerusalem the trees will issue a new crop of fruit each month that brings life and healing.2
Martin Luther sees a similarity between what Paul says here and what Jesus said about heaven and earth passing away.3 But here we are given to understand it is not the elimination of heaven and earth’s existence, but the elimination of the bondage of corruption both creatures and creation has groaned under since the fall of Adam. Luther also sees a connection between what Paul says here and what is recorded in the OT as the prayer of a troubled man when he is afraid and pours out his heart to the LORD: “In the beginning, You laid the foundations of the earth and made the heavens with Your hands! They will vanish, but You will remain forever. They will grow old like worn-out clothing; yes, You will change them like old clothing that is thrown away!”4 In Luther’s mind, this is what happened to Christ as He changed from the corruptible body given Him while here on earth and emerged from the tomb with an immortal glorious body. Because of this, all those who believe in Him will experience the same thing on their day of resurrection.5
John Calvin sees a similar picture in his mind. Creation cannot be freed from the bondage of corruption until the children of God are wholly restored to enter the celestial kingdom of God. Calvin describes life here on earth, both for creatures and creation, as one of meaninglessness because no matter what they work for, accomplish, and accumulate, they leave it all behind and go back to the dust. And even though it is the natural inclination of the whole of nature to preserve and perfect itself, it can never make the leap to everlasting life. It was only Jesus Christ who was able to break through this barrier.6
Calvin goes on to say that because of the circumstances that followed Adam’s fall, the whole world system instantly became bewildered. All of its parts would have spun out of control if it had not been for some invisible power that supported and held them together. In light of that factor, it would seem wholly inconsistent then that the sincere work of the Holy Spirit should be less effective in the children of God than the hidden instincts in parts of creation. Because of this, all created things naturally incline away from becoming what they could have been in the confusion. Even though it pleased God to have them exist and operate vainly with nothing in sight to change their lot, yet He has given them hope for a better future. With this hidden knowledge, they sustain themselves, deferring their desire for something better until the incorruption also promised to them will be revealed.7
Adam Clarke views this meaningless feeling from another perspective by suggesting that we go back to the origin of the Gentiles. It happened when the languages were confused during Nimrod’s attempt to build a tower that reached into heaven. It was an attempt to get as close to God as possible and put a sword in His hand so He could wage war against their enemies. Then, build a temple at the top to worship and offer sacrifices to Him in order to gain His favor. Their greatest fear was that another civilization would invade them and carry them off into foreign lands.8 Later on, because Abraham came from this same place where the tower was built, it became a tradition among the Jews that this tower was built to satisfy the passion of idolatry. They reckon that because God confused the languages of those building the tower, true religion was lost to the world. To them, this was proof that the builders of this tower sinned against God to the highest degree.9 So in the end, all their efforts to reach and influence God was a meaningless effort.
Then Albert Barnes looks at the positive aspects of this meaningless feeling in Paul’s day by saying that the instinctive feelings of believers lead them to desire a purer and a happier life. They had no interest in being subjected to the toils of this life, and to the temptations and vanities of this world. So they constantly sighed for deliverance. Perhaps they did not know that their being subjected to this state of meaninglessness as their lot in life was chosen by God. Why is it then, God did not see fit to inform them fully? Maybe because they would have requested to be taken to heaven as soon as they were converted. So for Barnes, even though we may not fully know all the reasons why God allows us to stay here in this state of meaninglessness, He has His reasons, and all we need to do is look for them.
Barnes then goes on to suggest the following: First, Christians are subjected to this state to do good to sinners in order to open their eyes to salvation. They remain on earth for this purpose: and this should be their leading aim. Another reason is that by their remaining here, the power of the Gospel is shown in giving them control over sin; in coping with their temptations; in sustaining them during times of trial; and thereby furnishing living evidence to the world the power and excellence of the Gospel. This could not be attained if they were removed at once to heaven. In addition, it furnishes occasions for some interesting exhibitions of character – for hope, and faith, and love, and for an increasing and progressive excellence. Furthermore, it is a proper training for heaven. It brings out the Christian character and makes it fit for the skies above.
There may be inestimable advantages, which we cannot see, in subjecting Christians to a process of training in overcoming their sins, and in producing confidence in God, before they are admitted to their place of rest. And finally, it is fit and proper that they should engage here in the service of Him who has redeemed them. They have been ransomed by the blood of Christ, and God will be the first to step in during all the conflicts and toils; in all the labors and services to which they may be subjected in this life. Barnes sees this as the basis of the believer’s hope which sustains them through life. Knowing it is God’s promise that deliverance will come, this blessed assurance supports the Christian in the middle of the trials and tribulations which come their way. They wait for the day when they will be delivered from all the toils and cares, and sins of this life.10
Charles Hodge mentions three things that every believer should keep in mind. First, until it is revealed who the true children of God really are, everyone and everything is now subject to feeling meaningless. Secondly, this subjection was not an option given for mankind to choose voluntarily, it was imposed by God. And thirdly, this subjection was never designed to be final. Hodge then goes on to show why mankind’s subjection to meaninglessness was not hopelessness because Paul said that they were destined to share in the glorious redemption planned by God.11 We could say it’s the difference between a prisoner imprisoned with the possibility of parole and the one imprisoned for life without parole. Those who are subject to feeling meaningless because of corruption, who believe that Christ came to take their place and suffer the consequences of their sin, can be freed. But those who reject Him will be left to die in their corrupt meaninglessness and face eternity without God.
Frédéric Godet makes the claim that Paul does not say that nature will participate in the glory itself, only in the liberty of the children of God. After all, liberty is something nature already enjoys. Plants and animals can grow, bloom, and blossom so as to express their powers of life and beauty. This, the new creation must wait to be endowed with on the day of resurrection. That’s why Paul does not espouse the view that life will return to bodies that are composed using the elements of nature. In this state of being mankind and nature are merely temporary manifestations of their species. Therefore, we must think of a new nature being entirely different from the old system in its composition.12
Karl Barth has a rather intellectual commentary on what Paul is saying here about how the creature and creation were subject to a sense of meaninglessness by God. He says that all things to be manifested in mankind are hidden in God. This includes life and death, light and darkness, good and evil, rise and fall, idealism and materialism, the inner and outer. The contrast between the way they exist in God’s mind and how they exist as part of mankind clearly displays the meaninglessness of the creature. For Barth, our assurance comes from the fact that all the suffering, by which the whole created world of people and things is subject to, belongs to God, His action, His question, and His answer. For this reason, He covers His creature with the umbrella of hope.
Barth then notes that putting pessimism and optimism aside, and going to the point in time where the cosmos existed without the feeling of meaninglessness yet to come, we will already find the apprehension of the Creator to the fall of His creation. It is from there that hope emerges. It is the hope of the restoration of the union that once existed between the Creator and His creation. It was planned to come through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. But it is only when the creature becomes aware of their complete bondage that the hope of freedom is recognized. And once they perceive the frightfulness of death, there also arises the hope of a resurrection. It is this final stage of understanding that becomes the first step toward a solution in Christ, by the Spirit, and because God is God.
The truth is then advanced, and it moves from death to life. This results in hope for the glorious freedom which awaits the new creation, the child of God. Everything they will be has not yet been realized, but it is something for which they wait with groans. It is a blessing contained in a promise, and in that promise even the body, even man himself, yes, even the universe will share. For Barth, being a child of God is a most blessed experience. As a child of God, they enter a world that has a future because of a promise. If God was willing to free His creatures, then He must also be willing to free the creation into which they were placed. If people are one with another because they are one with God, they must expect that, like God, they too will one day live where there is no growth, decay, nor death.13
1 Cyril of Alexandria: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Revelation 22:2
3 Matthew 24:35
4 Psalm 102:25-26
5 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 125
6 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Calvin, Ibid.
8 Genesis 11:3-4
9 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 153
10 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 424
12 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.