Christian Hope: Redeemed Creation
1/21/2018 2:00:29 AM
January 14, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Romans 8:17-25
Imagine a great artist. He has painted numerous masterpieces. After many years, the artist is browsing in an antique store where, at the back, he finds one of his own masterpieces! But it has clearly been neglected and abused. The painting is dirty and torn. The frame is cracked and broken. The artist sees this painting in such a state and deeply desires to restore it.
Can he just walk out with that painting because he painted it? No! Of course not. He must first buy it back from the antique store. So the artist purchases the painting and takes it home. There, over time, working in his studio, he carefully cleans the painting. He gently fixes tears. He replaces missing bits of pigment. He gets a new frame for the piece. Finally, having lovingly restored his masterpiece, he decides he will never again let it out of his possession! So he hangs it in his own home to enjoy every day.
As the master artist and creator, this is how God feels about his creation – our world. Our world has become dirty and broken and God’s desire is to lovingly restore it. God originally made our world and it was good. But humanity’s sin affected all of creation. Although humans are the only creatures that sin, because God made us stewards over all of creation, our sin affected all of creation. Human sin enslaved all of creation. The Bible doesn’t tell us all the effects of sin on creation. It doesn’t tell us what creation was like before human sin entered. So we must not get bogged down in the details of what the earth would have been like if we had not sinned. The point is, in the end, our sin affects not only us, but all of creation.
The good news is, though, that God, the master artist, wants to restore his masterpiece. He wants to restore all of creation! As Christians, we talk a lot about God rescuing humanity. We have talked a lot, here at Priory, about God saving us from our sin and healing the brokenness of sin in people. But God’s redemptive plan is not limited to human beings. God wants to redeem all of creation! At his return, Jesus’ ultimate victory over sin and death will be thorough. This means he will bring victory over the effects of sin on all of creation.
Our redemption is qualitatively different from the redemption of the rest of creation because we are created in God’s image and our sin, therefore, requires a different level of redemption. But, that said, God’s redemptive plan stretches as far as the curse of sin is found. Think of the verse in “Joy to the World,” “Far as the curse is found!”
Last week we talked about our hope as Christians looking forward to our physical resurrection. Our future is not to live for eternity as souls without bodies in heaven. Our future is to have physical bodies like that of the resurrected Jesus! These bodies will last into eternity because the decay of sin and death will be broken and removed.
Today we are going to take a look at what God has in store for the rest of creation as well. We are going to put together what we talked about last week and what we learn this week to see that our future is not only to exist as physical creatures with bodies, but to live on a renewed, restored earth too!
By way of context, Paul is talking about our adoption as sons of God. In the ancient world, only sons could inherit, so he is using the terminology of sons. This isn’t a gender thing! But Paul links our sonship, our adoption, with our future glory and how that will affect creation.
What It Says
In the beginning of our passage, a continuation of what Paul has been saying, Paul connects our suffering with Christ’s suffering and Christ’s future glory with our future glory. Paul says that our present suffering is nothing compared to the glory we have in store. The words he uses for “present suffering” are actually, “the suffering of the now time.” [John Stott, Romans, p. 237] This means the suffering of “the present age” in contrast to the glory of the future age, the age to come. We will talk about this more later, but realize Paul is talking about the reign of sin in the present age vs the reign of God in the age to come.
Verse 19 tells us creation is eagerly waiting for the sons of God to be revealed. That is, for those who will inherit from God and with Christ to be revealed. Why? Because when they are glorified, creation will be set free. Suffering and glory are interconnected for people but also for creation.
In verse 20, Paul says that all of creation was subjected to “frustration.” The word for frustration can be translated a number of ways. It can also mean “futility,” “vanity” or “meaningless.” [FF Bruce, Romans, p. 173] In the Greek version of Ecclesiastes, that book opens with “everything is vanity, vanity.” That is the word Paul uses here. The same word, for vanity, is also used for worshiping idols for false gods. So creation has been subjected to worshiping false Gods instead of worshiping God. All of creation has been alienated from God, but with a purpose- that purpose is the hope of the future when creation will be set free from bondage to death and decay when the sons of God are revealed in their glory.
Verse 22 tells us that all of creation is groaning. “Birth pangs” or birth pains was a common Jewish image for current difficult times leading up to the Messianic age. [Stott, p. 241] So again, Paul is contrasting the present age of sin with the future age of the kingdom of God.
Not only does creation groan, but we groan too. We, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit. Last week we mentioned that Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection. Here Paul uses the same image of firstfruits. These are the first parts of the harvest that point to the whole harvest, the great amount yet to come. But, there’s more going on here too. Jews celebrated the festival of firstfruits, the festival of weeks. In Greek, this is “Pentecost!” [Stott, p. 242] So Paul is probably connecting the events at Pentecost, the arrival of the Holy Spirit on earth in a new, powerful way, with Christians’ experience of the Spirit in them as the firstfruits, the promise of what is to come. And we groan now because of the difference between the present age of sin and what we have experienced a taste of with the Spirit- the future age to come, the Kingdom of God.
And the hope of the future fullness of the Kingdom of God is our hope. That hope is for our salvation and also the liberation of creation from sin. Creation was subjected to frustration with the hope of future liberation. We have the same hope for future liberation from sin. We have a tangible experience of this hope in the Spirit. And hope is an important thing when experiencing suffering!
What It Means
So what does this passage mean? We see that creation is longing for the sons of God to be revealed. Why? Because when the sons of God are revealed in their adoption and glory, all of creation will be set free too! Suffering and glory are connected. Christ’s glory came through suffering. So will ours. And here we see that creation’s glory will come through that suffering too, or at least creation’s suffering will end when our glory comes.
Paul is saying that not only will our future glory compensate for our present suffering, but our future glory actually grows out of our suffering. [Bruce, p. 169] Suffering and affliction are the means by which the Spirit transforms us, the means by which our outer nature, our sinful nature, is work down and our inner nature, our spiritual nature, is built up until we are formed in the image of Christ. [Bruce, p. 169]
“For the essence of discipleship is union with Christ, and this means identification with him in both his suffering and his glory.” [Stott, p. 235] The road to intimacy with the Father is the road marked with suffering. That is the road that Jesus trod. That is the road his disciples should expect to walk as well.
Verses 19-21 lay out the connection between the suffering or frustration of creation because of our sin with the liberation or freedom of creation which with come with our glorification, which comes through the glory of Christ. “It is no accident that the redemption of ‘nature’ is here seen as coinciding with the redemption of man’s body- the part of his being which links him with the material creation.” [Bruce, p. 170] This is why it is significant that our bodies will be physically resurrected in the future. God loves physical creation. Our physicality is not a problem for God, it is part of what God made and declared was “good.” Our physicality links us to physical creation, another thing God said was good. Our future resurrection, the redemption of our physical bodies, is tied to the redemption of the physical world. God is not going to just pull us out of the physical world to exist without bodies for eternity.
These verses, then, “don’t point to the annihilation of the present material universe on the day of revelation, to be replaced by a universe entirely new, but to the transformation of the present universe so that it will fulfil the purpose for which God created it.” [Bruce, p. 171. Cf Stott, p. 241; Douglas Moo, Romans, p. 517]
Humanity won’t be destroyed to be made new. Humanity will be resurrected and transformed to become new, to be re-created. Similarly, creation, the world, will not be destroyed in order to be made new, it will be transformed. But creation’s transformation “depends on the completion of man’s transformation by the working of God’s grace.” [Bruce, p. 171]
This means “the universe is not going to be destroyed, but rather, liberated, transformed and suffused with the glory of God.” [Stott, p. 241] This has been God’s plan all along! It was his plan from before creation began.
Now, let’s take a step back for a second. Remember “suffering in the now times” and “birthpangs” were both talking about the present age versus the age to come? Remember, Paul is talking about our present experience in contrast with our future experience. We’ve used a very helpful diagram here before which helps us wrap our heads around this. From the left, along the bottom, is the line labelled “this present age/age of sin.” This line begins at the left and ends at the return of Christ. In the middle are the cross and resurrection, and then on the right is the return of Christ. From cross and resurrection begin the line along the top, “The future age/the Kingdom of God.” We are living between the resurrection of Christ and the return of Christ, which will involve the resurrection of God’s people. So between these two events in history, the top line and the bottom line overlap. That is, the two ages, the age of sin and the Kingdom of God, overlap. We who are Christians are living or existing in the tension caused by two ages overlapping. We experience the suffering of the age of sin, but we have the firstfruits, the Holy Spirit, of the Kingdom of God. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, but residents of the age of sin.
The groaning that Paul is talking about in our passage, both the groaning of creation and the groaning of the children of God, is the groaning of living in 2 ages at once. We are experiencing the age of sin, but we are groaning in anticipation of the Kingdom God in its fullness. Creation is looking forward to the return of Christ to be set free from sin. That is when we, too, will be glorified and share in the glory of Christ.
Now, I want to consider this from God’s perspective. We tend to think of this from a human perspective, our discomfort of living in 2 ages at once. We may look backwards at the cross, but we struggle to look forward to the resurrection. But consider this from God’s eternal perspective. None of this is a surprise to God!
The incarnation of Christ, his atonement on the cross, his resurrection were not a surprise to God. Jesus was not God’s “Plan B.” Jesus is referred to as “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Jesus knew, before creating the world, that he would have to die for the world to redeem it from sin. Working backwards, this means that Jesus loved us so much, even before creating us, that he knew he would have to die for our sins to reconcile us to God. And he chose to create us anyway! That’s amazing!
Then, looking forward, that Jesus was not “Plan B,” means that Jesus’ return to earth was not “Plan B” either! Our resurrection in the future was not plan B. Jesus knew, before creation began, that he would return to earth in power one day and bring an end to death and decay. He knew he would return to earth and resurrect us! God knew he would return and redeem us, and that he would return and redeem creation!
What does this mean? It means that God’s goal for creation was not what we read in Genesis 1. Rather, God’s goal for creation was Revelation 21- the new Jerusalem coming to earth and all things being made new. God knew in Genesis 1 all about the rest of the story. He saw creation was good when he made it, but knew already that the Atonement, resurrection, and future redemption of humanity and creation were going to happen. That was his plan all along!
So another way to look at it is that we are living between God’s first act of creation (Genesis 1) and his final act of re-creation (Rev 21). We are living in the processing time of God’s creative plan. God’s plan all along was to re-create us, to redeem us, after being created, falling into sin and then being saved.
What I’m saying is that before God created the universe, he sat back and thought about the difficult problem, “How do I create creatures that have free will, who will love me forever without rebelling and sinning against me?” This is the very difficult problem of free will and God’s sovereignty. God wanted to make a physical creation. He wanted to make stewards to help look after that creation and live in loving relationship with one another and with God. But that takes free will. So how do you create stewards of creation with free will who won’t reject God and sin? What was the solution God came up with? Create creatures who have free will who do rebel, who do reject God and fall into sin, and then save them, redeem them, recreate them to live with him
forever! God’s means for creating creatures to love him freely, but not sin, is to make them first when they do sin and then redeem them through his own blood!
So why does all this matter? What use does this have for us in our Christian walk? First, it shapes our view of creation. Creation matters to God. Matter matters to God. God is going to resurrect us physically. We will have bodies made of matter. God still loves his creation. He’s not done with it. It matters to him. So as part of our resurrection and redemption, God is not only going to transform us, but transform creation as well!
This also informs our understanding of suffering. We tend to think of suffering as a waste. It’s a waste of time, a waste of energy. It’s unpleasant. We don’t like it. We avoid it. But here we see that God’s tools for creating holy people and a renewed creation include suffering! Suffering is a way by which God changes us to be more like Christ. Our suffering in this passage is linked to Christ’s suffering. It is also linked to creation’s suffering. But Christ’s suffering is linked to his glory, which means our being linked to Christ in suffering means we will be linked to Christ in his glory. Creation is linked to our suffering, so it will also be linked to our glory.
God’s plan for making perfect, free-willed creatures who do not sin is to make free-willed creatures who do sin, who suffer for it somewhat and then are redeemed.
Another application is that this should change our view of the created world. Consider that famous verse, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” God’s plan of redemption is not just because he loves people, but because he loves the whole world! So his plan of redemption, sending his Son, must have consequences for the whole world, not just select people.
The world matters to God. Creation is God’s masterpiece. His plan is not to leave it dirty, broken and alienated from him. No! His plan is to redeem is, clean it up and transform it. And if the world matters to God, and we are his children, his heirs, then the world should matter to us too. If we are his representatives on earth, then what is important to him should be important to us. If we are his ambassadors of reconciliation, and reconciliation includes reconciliation with the created world, then that affects our mission as Christians.
In Genesis 1, God originally made humans to be free-willed, authoritative stewards or caretakers of creation. That is still God’s purpose for us! That is still our role even if we fail at it in sin. That will be our role when Jesus returns and our bodies are transformed and no longer subject to decay. The created world will also be transformed but we will still have a role to play in its care.
If creation is God’s masterpiece and we are his children, then our job includes caring for his masterpiece. Now the “why” is very important. Christian ecology should not be driven by fear that the planet is going to fall to pieces, or that the climate is going to burn us out. Nor should it be driven by greed- the we need to care for the earth so it will continue to provide the natural resources we need to sustain our standard of living. Those are bad “why’s” for Christian ecology.
A good “why” for Christian ecology is worship. God made the world and said it was good. As a response to what God has done we should continue to see it as good and worth caring for. God hasn’t given up on creation. We have seen that creation will be renewed and set free when we come to glory. So we shouldn’t give up on creation either!
When it comes to Christian mission, we don’t give up on people because they’re tainted by sin. We see them as created in God’s image and so we carry out our duty to bring them the good news of Jesus in the hopes that they will be saved. In the same way, just because creation is tainted by sin doesn’t mean we should discard it, or give up on it. Rather, we should work in God’s name to erase the taint of sin in creation just as we work to erase the taint of sin in people. It’s not our work to do alone, but our work carried out through the power of the Holy Spirit! God loves the world and sent his Son to redeem the world. The process happens to include us. Our redemption will lead to the world’s redemption too because it was our sin that lead to the world’s corruption. Amen.
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