NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson XXXI)
Verse 22-23a: We know that everything God made has been waiting until now in pain like a woman ready to give birth to a child. Not only nature, but we also have been waiting with pain inside us.
Now Paul addresses the feelings in his own era to report on the status of those who believed and accepted Christ as their Savior and yearned for His return. He joins the Roman faithful in declaring that now, more than ever, God’s people were longing for that final deliverance from life here on earth to spend eternity in His presence. This was also Paul’s word of encouragement to the Colossians: “It was through what His Son did that God cleared a path for everything to come to Him – all things in heaven and on earth – for Christ’s death on the cross has made peace with God for all by His blood.”1
Paul then goes on to say: “Christ has brought you back to God by His death on the cross. In this way, Christ can bring you to God, holy and pure and without blame.”2 But, says Paul, there are conditions they must meet: “The only condition is that you fully believe the Truth, standing in it steadfast and firm, strong in the Lord, convinced of the Good News that Jesus died for you, and never shifting from trusting Him to save you.”3 Jesus foresaw that day and told His disciples: “The world may greatly rejoice over what is going to happen to Me, but you will weep. However, your weeping will suddenly be turned into wonderful joy when you see Me again. It will be the same joy as that of a woman in labor when her child is born – her anguish gives place to rapturous joy, and the pain is quickly forgotten.”4
What was in Paul’s heart is the same longing that has caused saints of God to sing songs about the coming day of our Lord’s return over the centuries. Paul told the Corinthians: “These earthly bodies make us groan and sigh, but we wouldn’t like to think of dying and having no bodies at all. We want to slip into our new bodies so that these dying bodies will, as it were, be swallowed up by everlasting life. This is what God has prepared for us, and as a guarantee, He has given us His Holy Spirit.”5
Several early church scholars seem strained to explain what Paul is saying here about creation groaning for the day of delivery. Origen suggests that creation’s groaning is similar to Paul’s groaning for the Gospel to be brought to those still in darkness. For Ambrosiaster, to groan in anguish is to grieve. He points to the sun and moon and states that even they fill their spaces in the sky with distress Also, the spirit of the animals demonstrates its bondage with loud groanings. All these are waiting for rest and to be set free from their slavish labor. I think these thoughts were meant more to illustrate how groanings and longings are expressed than any attempt at defining Paul’s reasons for the groaning.
Origen feels that if this labor on the part of nature were of any benefit to God, then creation would be rejoicing, not grieving. But each day they watch everything they’ve done fall apart. The next day it must be done all over again. Therefore, it is only proper to grieve because all their work does not lead to eternity but to decay.6 In other words, nature existed and blossomed in a pristine state before the fall of Adam and Eve when there was no such thing as disease. But now everything nature produces is subject to disease that can make it unacceptable. So nature groans to get back to that condition where it no longer feels that its produce may rot and become unusable before it can be used.
But Augustine disagrees, he says that creation is not to be taken as a reference to trees, vegetables, stones, and other natural elements. They neither sigh nor are sorry. Nor should we think that the holy angels are subject to feeling meaningless since they don’t need to be freed from slavery or death, they are immortal. Here creation means the human race.7 But in another work, it is Augustine’s view that every creature is represented in mankind, not because they are part angel, or bird, or fish, or animal, but because the human creature is made up of a spirit, a soul, and a body. But it is the soul that sets them apart from all other creatures.8
Along with this, we have another scholar’s opinion that Paul is using the term creation to designate all the righteous people who’ve lived from Adam and Eve up to the time of Christ. He contends that they too groan along with Adam and Eve for the day to come when they will also be made new and adopted as children of God.9 As Pelagius sees it, the same angels who rejoice over those who repent, also grieve over those who are unwilling to repent.10 And Bishop Theodore has a novel idea on why all of creation suffers? For him, the invisible creatures, such as angels, grieve just thinking about it while visible creatures, such as humans and animals, suffer because they share in it.11
Ambrosiaster tells us that for many believers, living in this world is like being on a stormy sea. We know our destiny and that we have been promised a safe landing, but it’s the ride that can make us spiritual and emotionally seasick. In his opinion, just as the ocean’s waves are whipped into a frenzy by strong winds and produce storms for sailors, so also this world, moved by the winds of scheming, wicked people, disturbs the minds of believers. These enemies have so many different ways to do this that it is hard to know what to expect first because they have so many resources. In other words, they don’t know in what direction the wind will blow next.12
Martin Luther sees a present application of what Paul says here with regard to our bodies being made free. From his perspective, the Apostle Paul declares two things in this passage. First, the new creature in Christ will be liberated from their present routine after they separate from the wicked because their old nature has been destroyed. This deliverance is renewed from day to day in God’s saints. In other words, while sinners and creation continue to struggle with a meaninglessness existence, those who have been born-again need not wait until the resurrection to be freed from sin’s bondage, they have been set free by Christ to live for God as they would in a perfect society of God’s making. While this is a strong argument that believers can overcome sinful tendencies with the help and power of the Holy Spirit, it does not remove the meaninglessness of the body that wants to live disease and pain-free forever. That freedom will only come at the resurrection.13
John Calvin sees the groaning that Paul speaks of as signifying that both creatures and creation are not content in their present state, and yet they are not discouraged enough to just wilt away without any hope of change because they have hope that something better awaits them when God is ready to make it happen. Also, Calvin makes the point that by Paul saying that the old creation and the new creation groan together, he implies that they do so in one accord because they are united by mutual anxiety. Paul puts them together as companions enduring the same weariness. Calvin also makes note that the phrase, “until now,” serves to ease the fatigue of a daily grind. For him, since all creatures and creation have spent so many millennia groaning for relief from Adam’s curse, what a shame it would be if they grew soft and reluctant in their resolve to remain true during the fleeting shadow called life.14
Robert Haldane, in speaking about the groaning of creation and creatures, determines that in the four preceding verses Paul appealed to the state of nature’s groaning by painting a striking and beautiful picture. He has nature groaning under the torture of daily suffering. This suffering was inaugurated by the entrance of sin into the human factor, which then prompted a looking forward with ardent expectation, as with an outstretched neck hoping for the day of deliverance. Paul then proceeds to alert the believers in Rome as to their own feelings and experience. This was another way of saying that if those creatures that live and exist in nature long for the manifestation of the sons of God, how much more fervently must they themselves yearn for that glorious event.
Haldane also states that believers who have been given a foretaste of the coming everlasting joy in God’s presence certainly can sympathize with nature as it groans. Even now they enjoy a blessed freedom. They have been liberated from the dominion of sin, the curse of the law, and all the guilt and torment it brings. In its place, they have been given the joy unspeakable and full of glory that comes with dedicated faith.15 However, as long as they travel through this world they have much to suffer. Although their souls have been redeemed from the bondage of sin, they still look longingly for the day their bodies will also be redeemed. That will transform them into a full manifestation as the children of God. As Haldane sees it, the believer’s bodies, as well as their spirits were given to Christ. Therefore, they are equally the fruit of His purchase and members of His body – the Church. However, only after His people rise from the grave will they be able to enjoy all the privileges inherent in the redemption He paid for.16
John Stott encourages believers not to take the current groaning with some of life’s vanities as being meaningless. On the contrary, he says, they can be likened to the pains of childbirth. Although they are momentarily excruciating, they provide the assurance that something is coming into being that has never been seen before. Stott tells us that in Jewish apocalyptic literature, Israel’s current sufferings were frequently called “the woes of the Messiah” or “the birth pangs of the messianic age.”17 That is, they were seen as the painful prelude to the heralding of the victorious arrival of the Messiah. Jesus also used similar expressions when delivering His apocalyptic discourse. He spoke of false teachers, wars, famines, and earthquakes as “the beginning of birth-pains” (NIV).18 Or, “the first birth-pangs of the new age” (REB), that is, preliminary signs of His coming. Stott goes on to say that here Paul brings the past, present, and future together. Not only has creation groaned, but it continues to groan. And since such groans are likened to labor pains, they speak of something alive and new coming into existence. This then should make the groaning one of expectation not desperation.19
1 Colossians 1:20
2 Ibid. 1:22
3 Ibid. 1:23
4 John 16:20-21
5 2 Corinthians 5:4-5
6 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Augustine: On Romans 53
8 Augustine: Questions 67.5
9 Pseudo-Constantius: Paul on Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Theodore of Mopsuestia: Pauline Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 126
14 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 1 Peter 1:8
16 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 374
17 See Daniel 7:23-27; 8:5-14; 9:20-27; 11:14-12:3
18 Matthew 24:7-8; Mark 13:8 – New International Version
19 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.