We often hear of the distinction between the sacred and the secular. The notion is firmly engrained in our minds that this world and its doings – our jobs, our daily chores, our hobbies, the sciences, politics, and so on – is to be separated from religion and the spiritual. And so we compartmentalize our lives, sometimes without even realizing it. We go about our daily tasks with one mindset and the read our Bibles and go to church and pray and give alms with a different mindset.
But the distinction between sacred and secular is not a Biblical distinction. It is something that modern culture has imposed upon our thinking. And it is fundamentally contradictory to the way the Christian is supposed to think and live in this world, for to be secular means to go about our lives as if it had no religious basis. We cannot do that. All of this world is God’s world, and therefore the secular mindset is a denial of God’s sovereignty over all things. We are to do everything with all our might for the glory of God. Paul summarizes it this way to the Corinthians: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). That word “whatever” is all-encompassing. If you can’t do it to the glory of God, then you shouldn’t do it! To the servants Paul would write, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23); even our so-called “secular” work is to be done with a thoroughly religious mindset (see also Tit. 2:9,10). For the Christian, nothing is to be secular; our whole life is to be lived out before God and with an eye for his glory.
The apostle saw everything, even the physical and subhuman creation in relation to God. Paul knew that the promise of God stands true: “truly . . . all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD” (Num. 14:21). He didn’t compartmentalize like we do because there were no compartments in his mind in which God did not belong. We can see how true this was of the apostle by looking at our text. When Paul looked at the physical and animal world, he did not just see trees and flowers and mountains and lions and birds and fish, he saw a stage upon which the drama of redemption is played out to the glory of God and good of God’s people.
Like the psalmist, Paul didn’t see the Bible and the physical creation as opposed to each other. Rather, he saw them as two different books in which God was revealing himself to man (Ps. 19). If we listen hard enough, we will see that even the subhuman world is teaching us about God and his salvation.
One of the problems with the secular mindset is that, even though it claims to pay attention to the physical and material world better than religious people do, it does not really hear what it is telling us. The physical world is sending us a message. But that message is not the message that this world is all there is to it. It is rather a message that points us forward to the age to come. Even the physical world is a signpost for the new heavens and new earth. And that is what is entirely missed by the secular mindset. The message even of the physical creation is not that we should live only for the present. It’s message is that we should wait for the world to come. If there is one word that ties this paragraph together, it is the word “wait,” which we see in verses 19, 23, and 25. The “creation waits with eager longing” (19); “we [believers] wait eagerly” (23), and “we wait . . . with patience” (25).
You see, if you take the secular mindset seriously, you have to say that this world is just the way it is, and we shouldn’t say it ought to be different. You might want it to be different, or you might not like the way it is, but once you rule God out, there is not “ought.” As Yoda might put it, “It is or is not, there is no ought.” But the reality is that no one really thinks like that. We look at this world and we not only want it to be different, we know deep down that it ought to be different, that there is something objectively and fundamentally wrong with this world as it is. And so I think one of the arguments against the secularist mindset is that it forces us to deny what we all know to be true. If forces us to turn off the very lesson that Paul reminds us that the creation is teaching us. It is teaching us to wait, and in teaching us to wait, it is telling us something about sin and redemption, about the saints and salvation. It is telling us that it is waiting for the very thing God’s people are waiting for, and if you want to truly be in tune with the material universe you are going to have to be in tune with the people of God, for they are both waiting for the same thing.
What is the physical creation waiting for? What are believers waiting for? Let’s consider those two questions in order.
The physical creation is waiting for the glory of the children of God.
There are some who think that this entire passage is addressing the people of God and that the “creation” in verses 19, ff. is a reference to God’s new creation in Christ, the saints. However, this cannot be the case, because the “creation” is contrasted with believers in verses 22 and 23, esp. verse 23: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves…” The “we ourselves” are those who, in verse 22 are waiting for adoption as sons, the redemption of the body. This is clearly a reference to the people of God. They are the ones contrasted to the creation. So the creation is not a reference to the elect; rather, it is a reference to the subhuman creation, both animal and physical.
What Paul is saying is that the world and universe as we know it will be delivered from “bondage to corruption” (21). In other words, from the effects of sin. We know that when God created the world, it was very good (Gen. 1:31). There was no sin in it, and therefore no corruption. However, when man sinned in the Garden of Eden and caused the human race to fall into sin, the world became a stage for men in rebellion against God. It became a stage for depravity. The world which was meant to be a platform in which man would have perfect fellowship with God, now became a place where man tried to live in opposition to God.
As a result, the creation was “subjected to futility” for that is what sin does (20), and it now “waits with eager longing” (19) to be delivered. Indeed, it groans in childbirth (22). Paul does not identify exactly what those groanings are, but in light of what our Lord says in Mt. 24:5-8, they include wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes: “all these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” [The Greek word “birth pains” in Mt. 24:8 is related to the verb Paul uses in Rom. 8:22, which is probably why the ESV translates it, “groaning together in the pains of childbirth.”] It’s clear from the book of Revelation that earthquakes are sometimes sent as a judgment of God (cf. Rev. 6:12), and so belong to an order that is not the way it was meant to be. Just as the body reacts when invaded with a virus, so the physical creation is reacting to the virus of sin.
Paul tells us that the creation wants to be delivered, and that it is looking forward to a time when it will no longer be a stage for sin, when it will again be a place which is “very good.” I think it is very important to understand what the apostle is saying here, because it counteracts another error, which is that in the age to come there will no longer be a physical earth. But that is not what Paul says. He does not say that the earth will be annihilated but rather that it has been “subjected . . . in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (20-21). In other words, the redemption of the physical creation is tied up in the redemption of the people of God. Certainly, our redemption is not annihilation into nothingness! Neither should we expect that for the physical world.
What I’ve heard people say is that they want to spend eternity in heaven, not on the earth. What they don’t realize is that the saints which are now in heaven, though they are truly in a better place, are still incomplete, and that they will not be made complete until the resurrection of their bodies. Even the saints in heaven are longing for a better place! (cf. Rev. 6:10). Also, according to the book of Revelation, in the age to come heaven comes down to earth so that the dwelling of God is with men. We need not think that life on a renewed earth will deprive us of the blessings of heaven. That is a false choice. In any case, a renewed earth is the perfect place where resurrected people will enjoy undiminished fellowship with God. That is the essence of heaven. And that is what the earth in its present condition is longing for.
So it is not annihilation the creation is longing for but redemption. It longs in hope (20), waiting to be set free (21), struggling with birth pains not death pangs (22). Its redemption is a corollary to our own redemption and our redemption is not annihilation (23). And this fits what the Scriptures say elsewhere. For example, in Heb. 1, we read (quoting Ps. 102:25-27), “And, ‘You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end” (Heb. 1:10-12). The imagery of changing clothes does not fit the idea that the earth will be annihilated, but rather that its physical appearance will change in a way that is fitting a world without sin for people without sin.
This is the proper victory of Christ over Satan. When Satan tempted man into sin, he not only did something to Adam and his posterity, he also did something to the earth. What Paul is saying here is that this will one day be undone. To completely destroy the world would in some sense to concede defeat to the devil. But to remake it so that the effects of sin are undone, that is to destroy the works of the devil and win the victory over his rebellion.
However, some might point to 2 Pet. 3:10-12 and argue that these verses tell a different story, that the earth will indeed be completely done away with. Is that so? Here is how these verses read: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”
The answer is in verse 13. But before I point you to what the apostle says there, you might notice that what is said to be dissolved in ver. 10-12 is not the earth, but the heavenly bodies. The earth will be exposed, not destroyed. What is happening, however, is not a fire of annihilation, but a fire of purification, burning up and destroying everything that is impure and imperfect. What will take its place is not some ethereal, non-material heaven, but rather a renewed heavens and earth: “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
This will be a place where there is no sin and therefore no curse (Rev. 22:3 – compare with Gen. 3:17); no more cursed ground, no decay, no death (cf. Isa. 11:6-11). It will be a place where God dwells (Rev. 21:1-3). It will therefore be the perfect eternal dwelling place of the righteous, a place where we will be forever with the Lord (Jn. 14:1-3).
Something we should not miss is that this will take place simultaneously with the fullness of the redemption of the people of God, with their glorification. When will that take place? It will happen when “he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11); that is to say, at the resurrection of the dead, which will take place at the Second Coming of our Lord to earth.
The people of God are waiting for the redemption of their bodies in a renewed heavens and earth
Paul is essentially saying to us, “If even the earth cries out for the second coming, how much more should we?” Our glorification does not happen now, so we should not look for it now. We should expect sufferings in “this present time” (18). The groanings are groanings “until now” (22). But they are only for this present time. One day they will pass away. We ought to join the creation in groaning for the glory that we will enjoy in the age to come. There is a sadness in this world, a sadness which is common to this present order. Right now we mourn; but blessed are the mourners for they shall be comforted (Mt. 5:4).
There is something wrong with us if we are content with the world as it is. There is something wrong if we are looking for our ultimate fulfillment in this world. If we are thinking Biblically, we will look at this world as something which is passing away (1 Jn. 2:17). We will not look for our best life now. Our best life is yet to come. So that being the case, what ought to characterize us in the here and now? Three things.
“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” We groan because we are strangers and sojourners in the world (cf. 1 Pet 1). This world as it is, is not our home. Like a traveler who longs for his home, we long for ours. And so we groan. Now that doesn’t mean we groan out of bitterness, but out of a proper dissatisfaction with this present world, like Paul in 2 Co. 5:1-5 and Phil. 1:21,23. That is not a mark of imperfection but a mark of faith. It means we have a Biblical estimation of the corruption of this present age and of the glory of the age to come. Like the aged men who wept when they saw the temple that was being erected in the place of Solomon’s temple, we weep when we consider the difference between the corruption of the present age and the glory of the age to come. John Stott said in his commentary on this passage that many Christians grin too much and groan too little. I agree. Beware of Christians who live with little grins on their face as they enjoy this world with no thought of the world to come, and only think of it when they are faced from time to time with the inevitability of their death. Is this world our home, or do we look for another? (Heb. 11:9,ff).
However, be careful what you find yourself groaning over! Too often we groan over the wrong things – a failure to find comfort in this world instead of groaning because of our desire for the world to come. It is wrong to find the satisfaction of our souls in this world as it is, and like Demas to forsake the cause of Christ because you love this present world. But it is wrong also to groan over this world because you want it and don’t have its offerings – power, prestige, and possessions. We groan in this sense of this verse, not because we don’t have what the world has to offer, but because we don’t yet have what God has promised us in the world that is to come.
The apostle goes on to say, “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
In other words, our groaning is not a groaning in despair, but out of a confident expectation in the sure fulfillment of God’s promises (Tit. 1:2). Not only God’s promises, but God’s Spirit within us calls us to look in hope to the future. This is the significance of the “firstfruits of the Spirit” (23), which is not only a foretaste of future blessings but also a guarantee of them (Eph. 1:13-14). We don’t groan like a prisoner who has given up hope of ever being rescued. Rather, we groan in hope knowing that we will surely be rescued. There is coming a day when we will shed these prison clothes for a robe of glory.
It is important that we not only groan, but that we hope. We need both. The groaning will become unbearable without the hope. But the hope will be thin and diminished apart from the groaning. The groaning gives form and substance to our hope. We groan because we hope and hope because we groan.
It is important to underline the fact that our hope is in things unseen. We hope for what we do not see. Our hope is therefore not in the present order of things or in a rearrangement of society, but in a new heavens and new earth which Christ will bring when he comes again. Now that doesn’t mean we don’t shine our light and work for the advancement of God’s kingdom in this world. Of course we do. But we don’t do so with unrealistic and unbiblical expectations. With respect to this world, men, governments, treaties, etc., will never completely stop the violence, the poverty, and the corruption. Only the return of Christ will do it, and that is our hope (Rev. 14:12). If we really want to see the end of injustice, we are not going to be fully invested in purely temporal schemes to end it. Rather, our hope will be in the Second Coming of our Lord who will put a stop to all injustice and corruption and wickedness, and to live in light of that hope.
And I would argue that hope in the age to come doesn’t put a damper on our efforts to improve our world through the influence of the gospel. It inspires it because we realize that we are not laboring for something that will pass away; we are not laboring so much to put people right with this world but to bring men and women into an eternal relationship with God. But it also keeps us from becoming overwhelmed with the disappointments which we will inevitably meet with in this world – because, again, our hopes are not ultimately anchored in a utopia now, but in a redeemed world to come that will endure under the eternal Lordship of Christ.
Patient Waiting (25)
“…we wait for it with patience.”
The word “patience” there indicates endurance. What is hope anyway? If we really believe these things, it should cause us to continue faithful to Christ, no matter what the cost. Because what is promised us in Christ is worth far more (18) than whatever we might lose in our faithfulness to him. It means that we don’t let discouragement keep us from serving the Lord and loving for him, knowing that our labor is not in vain (cf. 1 Cor. 15:57-58).
Our groaning feeds our hope. But then our hope grows into patient endurance. It teaches us to persevere in spite of all the disappointments we meet along the way, because again this world is not all there is to reality. The present order is not the eternal order. We may face many trials and discouragements in this world, but we know that we have something far better coming. And so we keep on keeping on.