O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Part 2)

Originally written as a Christmas message, delivered on 12/19/10. Listen to the original audio recording here.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, 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. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 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. 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.” (Romans 8:18-25)

In part 1 of this post we looked at Zephaniah chapter 3 and saw how the people of God during the time of Zephaniah were waiting and anticipating and longing. Because of their disobedience and rebellion, God had removed them from the Promised Land, sent them into exile in Babylon, and sent the Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem and the temple at the heart of Jerusalem.

And to the people of God all of this wasn’t just a major inconvenience; wasn’t a merely geographical problem; it was an epic spiritual crisis. Their sin was unforgiven, they had been removed from the land God had promised them, which made them wonder if God had completely and finally forsaken them, and the destruction of the temple was God’s signal that he was leaving—that he would no longer dwell with his people; that he would no longer be “God with us.”

And so they longed for the end of exile—for God to be their only true King and master. They longed for mercy—for God to find a way to forgive their sins, numerous and grievous as they were. And they longed for God to come and dwell among them once again as Immanuel—“God with us.”

We also saw in Part 1 that, in fact, all these things came to pass in the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, who came to be Immanuel—the God who is with his people, who came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God and reign as the only true Lord of his people, and to die in the place of his people to purchase the forgiveness of their sin finally and completely. So that brings us to where we are today. And the question I want to pose today is:

Why isn’t the story over? 

Why isn’t Christmas the end of the story? I might have given the impression in Part 1 that the coming of Christ was the end of the story—exile over, Jesus present and ruling, sin forgiven…  And yet… I think we all still have the sense that… there has to be more.

We look at the world around us and we see earthquakes and tsunamis. We see AIDS and cancer. We see abuse and divorce. We see destitution and poverty. We see hunger and famine. We see tensions between nations, tensions between political parties, tensions between races, tensions between generations.

We look around and we see so much lingering wreckage from sin and the fall, and we say, “This… still can’t be right. There’s gotta be something more, doesn’t there? Remember the old men in the book of Ezra? The old men who had seen the first temple before it was destroyed before the exile, and when they saw the new temple being built they wept (Ezra 3:12) because of how much it paled in comparison to the first temple. They wept and said, “This can’t be right. God—is there more? Is there more than this?

In many ways, we are in a similar place. We pray, “Let your Kingdom come. Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—knowing full well that we’re praying that because clearly the Kingdom hasn’t fully come. God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven, yet. And so we wait. We anticipate. We long.

And Christmas reminds us what we’re longing for. In many ways we’re longing for the same thing that our spiritual forefathers longed for. We’re longing for the end of exile—not exile in Babylon. Exile in a place where there is a “God of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) who is not our God. We’re longing for God to deal with sin and evil—not just to forgive them, but to destroy them forever. And we’re longing for Immanuel—“God with us”—to come. Not to be among us for a time, but to reign and well dwell among us fully and finally forever.

And these are the very things Paul is anticipating in this text from Romans 8. In verse 18 he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (some translations say “revealed to us.”  Some say “revealed in us.” The Greek is a little ambiguous, but I think Paul means “revealed in us.” We’ll get to that in a moment). Verse 18 is the key to the rest of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph explains verse 18, so it’s important to understand what Paul means here. And the two difficulties in understanding it are, first, what are the “sufferings of this present time” that he’s talking about? And second, what is the “glory that is to be revealed.”

Let’s take those in turn. First, what are these “sufferings”? In many of the letters of the New Testament, there is evidence of believers who are already suffering because of persecution. 1 Peter, for example, is mainly written to encourage followers of Jesus who are being persecuted for their faith. They’re being hassled, pressured, beaten, even killed for following Jesus.

But the Christians in Rome weren’t being persecuted yet. Rome, for all its moral depravity, was a very cosmopolitan city at the time Paul wrote this letter. It was very accepting. Christians didn’t really begin to be persecuted there until years later. And Paul was writing to Rome from Corinth, which was even more accepting of religious diversity than Rome. So, as far as we know, there wasn’t any persecution of Christians either in the place Paul is writing from, nor the place he’s writing to at this point.

So, Paul isn’t talking, in verse 18, about suffering as a result of persecution. What’s he talking about then? He’s talking about suffering that is a result merely of living here. Living where?  Rome? Corinth? No… living here in the groaning creation. We live, as Paul did, as Jesus did, as Abraham did in a world that is beautiful, but badly broken. A world, Paul says in verse 20, that was subjected to futility”—that word means brokenness or emptiness or valuelessness.  “The creation was subjected to futility”—to brokenness; emptiness—not willingly, but because of him who subjected it.”

Who is that? Who subjected the creation to futility? 

The initial suspect might be Adam or Eve, since they’re the ones who rebelled and caused the Fall. But that’s not how the Fall narrative reads, is it?  “And to Adam [God] said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life’” (Genesis 3:17).

Adam sinned, but it was God who cursed the ground.  He cursed—not just human beings, but the world­—the very natural order—in which they live, and as a result the world fell into the sort of place where tectonic plates don’t always glide again each other.  They slip sometimes and earthquakes happen. Where human greed and weather patterns cause famine to happen. Where cells stop working right and cancer happens. Where bodies lose the ability to fix themselves and death happens.

But that’s not Paul’s point in verse 18, is it? His point is to say that all of this: All this death, all this sickness, all this brokenness, all this pain, all this frustration, all this tension, all this struggle we experience as a part of living in this place—all of it is “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (v. 18).  Now again (I’ll spare you the nuances of the Greek dative case) I don’t think Paul is saying that this glory is to be reveled to us. It’s going to be revealed in us. It’s not going to be some spectacular thing out there that we’re going to observe. It’s going be a spectacular thing in here that we will experience.

So what is it?

What’s this glory that will be revealed in us that will be so breathtaking that any suffering we could experience here will not even be worth comparing to it?  What is this that’s going to happen in us that will make us say then, “I can’t believe I EVER grumbled about my circumstances! I can’t believe I EVER complained about my pain. I can’t believe I EVER looked at God in doubt and discontent in view of this splendor?” What is it? Paul calls it “glory” in verse 18.

Glory is a notoriously difficult word to define. We use it a lot in our churches, of course, but it seems to be one of those words that everyone can use in a sentence, but most people can’t define.  Right? I mean, Define “glory.” …  Does it mean “goodness”? Well, sure, but that’s not all. Does it mean “beauty?” Sort of. But when we say God is glorious, we’re saying more than just, “God is beautiful,” aren’t we? The core of the meaning of word really has to do with “brightness” and “splendor” and “luminosity.” But, floodlights are bright and luminous. Are floodlights glorious?

To explain glory you really need to use more words. You have to say something like, “Glory is a state of radiant beauty and splendor that flows from a magnificent and praiseworthy nature.” God is the most glorious being because he is the most magnificent and praiseworthy being that exists, and therefore his magnificence and praiseworthiness show forth in incomparable and unfathomable beauty and splendor.

Man, on the other hand…

J.M. Boice wrote,

“Man was once a beautiful physical specimen. The man Adam and the woman Eve were the glory of creation. They excelled the rest of the created order in every respect. But when they sinned, physical decay, sickness, suffering, and eventually physical death came upon them. God said, “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19b). They were not originally destined to die, but die they did.  Man was also beautiful in soul, the most beautiful of all the creatures. He had a nobility that transcends our ability to fathom.  But once Adam and Eve sinned, that beautiful soul was tarnished.  Now they began to lie and cheat and shift the blame from their own failings to those of others.  Most significant was the ruination of their spirits.  The spirit was that part of Adam and Eve that had communion with God.  They had walked and talked with God in the garden. But once they fell, they no longer sought God out.  They hid from him, and the encounter that eventually came was a judgment. We enjoyed glory once, which is why we long for it so much.  But it is gone…. What a marvelous thing it is then, when we turn to the Bible, to find that the end of our salvation in Christ is not merely deliverance from sin and evil and their consequences, but glorification. God is restoring to us all that our first parents lost.” (Romans, 864)

That’s what Paul’s saying in verse 18. He’s saying that part of the gospel is that God himself will restore our glory—in ways even beyond what was lost. He will resurrect believers long dead, he will transform believers living, and will reform us all into beings whose magnificence and praiseworthiness radiate in beauty and splendor—who, as Jesus said, “shine like the sun” in the Kingdom of our Father (Matthew 13:43).

And the beauty and wonder of this transformation in us will be so vastly disproportionate to the consequences of the Fall that any pain or hurt or suffering here will seem in retrospect to have been as nothing.

But here’s the part of the gospel that I think so often gets left out.  We tend to individualize the gospel. We tend to think only of what the gospel has to say about my situation. What’s it gonna do for me? How do I get saved? But the gospel is bigger than that. The gospel is global. It has cosmic implications. Let’s keep reading.  Verse 19: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” That is, all creation, in a manner of speaking, waits with “eager longing” for this transformation to happen in us believers—for this glory; this radiance to be revealed in us. Why? Why is creation longing for that. Keep reading…

Verse 20: “For the creation was subjected to futility”—to brokenness—“not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope…”  In what hope? What was God’s hope for his creation when he subjected it to the curse of the Fall? “…In hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage”—its slavery—“to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”

What Paul is saying here is that there is a parallel between what God will do in us and what he will do in all his creation. Just as there is a glorious resurrection and transformation coming for us, there is a glorious resurrection and transformation coming for the whole cosmos.

As N.T. Wright says,

“[The earliest Christians] believed that God was going to do for the whole cosmos what he had done for Jesus at Easter.  …What has happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…is by no means limited to its effects on those human beings who believe the gospel and thereby find new life here and hereafter.  It resonates out, in ways that we can’t fully see or understand, into the vast recesses of the universe.” (Surprised By Hope, 93, 97)

The earth as we know it will not be destroyed in favor of a foggy, cloud land where we all float around as disembodied spirits.  Rather the earth itself will be resurrected and remade—set free from the curse that has marred and broken it. It will, in a word, be glorified. God will drench it with himself and will fill it—he will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), and he will be Immanuel once again—God dwelling with his people.

In the meantime, we wait. We wait with a taste in our mouths of what is to come. A taste that makes us anticipate and long for more. Paul calls this “taste” we’ve been given, in verse 23, the “firstfruits of the Spirit,” or “the firstfruits from the Spirit.”  He writes, “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. 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.

The question you should ask yourself when you read what Paul says there is, “Wait. Wait. Don’t we already have these things?  Aren’t we already adopted as sons (and daughters)? Don’t we already have redemption in Christ? Aren’t we already saved?”  Why is Paul talking like we’re still waiting for these things? Why does he say that we “wait eagerly” for adoption, for redemption, for salvation?

The answer is that Paul views our situation here and now as a parallel, in some ways—an echo—of the situation of the people of God who returned to the Promised Land in the time of Ezra, that we talked about two weeks ago. Was there an end to the exile at that time?  Well, yes.  …But no. They were back in the Promised Land, but they were still waiting for God to come and end their slavery and reign over them as their only king. Had God forgiven their sin? Well, yes. He had returned them to their land.  …But no—they still were suffering judgment for their sins. Had God returned to dwell among them? Well, yes. There was a functioning temple. …But no. It was a shack of a building and God really still seemed far off.

Have we been adopted as sons and daughters of the King through Christ? Yes. But we are not yet the sons and daughters we will be when all sin and evil in us is destroyed by the benevolent power of God, and we are glorified and transformed, becoming like God’s Son, Jesus, when we see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

Have we been redeemed? Have we been ransomed—freed—from the dominion of sin so that we are no longer enslaved to sin; so that sin and death are no longer our master? Yes. Sin is no longer our master. …But sin still masters us… because we let it. And one day God will eradicate sin completely, and the war will be over. And obedience and the pleasure of holiness will fill completely every part of us.

Have we been saved through faith in the finished work of Christ on the Cross? Yes. But we still wait for an even greater saving, ready to be revealed in the last day (1 Peter 1:5), a saving that will make us not merely citizens of heaven dwelling in a dark world—as we are now—but citizens of the new heavens and new earth, living in God’s new world.

What we enjoy here and now because of Christ’s death for us—forgiveness, reconciliation, adoption, redemption, power, glory, joy, hope, peace, rest… all of these things are only tastes.  They are only faint tastes of the salvation that is coming. They are only the firstfruits.

These present realities that we sing about, that we talk about in church, that we write books about, write songs about… all of them—wonderful as they are—are only the firstfruits of what is to come.

Let me close this way: Here’s how this all connected to Christmas.  Jesus’ first advent—his first coming, which we remember this week—is itself only the firstfruits of what is still to come. The first advent anticipates the second advent and is the promise that it will surely come. The coming of Immanuel that we celebrate at Christmas is the firstfruits of the coming of Immanuel that we will celebrate together with him forever.

The song of our spiritual fathers was, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel; that mourns in lonely exile here; until the Son of God appear.” Our song is, “O come Thou Dayspring, come and cheer; Our spirits by Thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night; And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”

Because the curse of the Fall persists, the shadow of decay and death still lingers over us and this groaning creation. But when the “Dayspring” comes (Dayspring means “dawn”, “sunrise,” “the rising of light into the darkness”). When the Dayspring comes, he will disperse the shadows of death and night forever.

So as we look back, on Christmas, to the coming of Immanuel to dwell with us and save us, let us also let Christmas point us forward to the last coming of Immanuel to dwell with us and save us.

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